Flood homes will be abandoned

Storm Xynthia has raised long-term questions over planning law and building in flood zones

HOMES that were severely damaged by floods during Storm Xynthia and are no longer habitable will be bought up by the government at pre-flood prices and destroyed.

President Nicolas Sarkozy said the risks of structural collapse and further flooding in some of the worst-hit communes were so great that the government had decided to ban people from settling back in their old home or carrying out reconstruction work.

“We will not let people move back into homes situated in areas where there is a life-threatening risk,” Sarkozy said. “It’s a difficult choice, but one we have to take. Some people will not be returning home.”

The government is also looking to put through a decree allowing it to make some “preventative acquisitions” to clear other areas at a high risk of sudden flooding.

Junior Housing Minister Benoist Apparu has written to some mayors in the Vendée and Charente-Maritime about the state purchase scheme.

The full list of towns covered is currently being drawn up.

The state will give displaced families the cost of their old home and will pay rehousing costs for up to six months.

Interest-free loans will be made available to low-income victims to buy a new home.

The Xynthia storm killed 53 people and flooded vulnerable housing estates in low-lying areas. The disaster has reignited the debate about town-planning and whether building permission should have been given in flood zones.

Sarkozy said a lot of the damage was down to “decisions that went against common sense, negligence and ignored advice”.

He urged everyone to avoid “useless arguments” about who was to blame, but with 12,000 communes in risk areas from coastal and inland flooding, the questions about planning permission will not go away easily.

One Vendée coast estate agent said: “We’ve seen this coming since the 1980s.

“Increasingly, farmers cannot make ends meet, so they apply to have their land converted to building land.

“No housing estate in either L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer or La-Faute-sur-Mer [the two worst-hit communes] was built illegally, everything is okayed by the DDE (Direction Départemental de l'Equipement) and the préfecture, and approved by the mayors, so it is impossible to lay the blame on any one body.

“Buyers are informed by law of flood risk. The notaire repeats this information.

“Yet I’ve never seen a potential buyer back out at that point.”

To find out if your house is in a risk area, ask your préfecture or see www.prim.net

Suzanne Tallard, mayor of Aytré, south of La Rochelle, where three people died and 60 houses had up to 1.8m of water, said: “I take full responsibility for what happened.

“We insisted on building bungalows, to protect the view from the sea – that’s why people were trapped in their homes.

“We’ve made too many decisions for landscaping and environmental reasons, while forgetting the risk to human life.”

For Frédéric Counil, a town planner in Marennes, Charente-Maritime, the state is more to blame than mayors.

“A mayor can refuse planning permission, but when pressure comes from the préfecture, it is hard to counter it.

“The state is responsible for insuring the legality of land use. It just hasn’t refused enough,” he said.

However he said it was important that planning laws did not go from one extreme to the other: “Préfectures are now asking us to refuse planning permission even where only slight flooding occurred. If we do that, the impact on the local economy will be terrible, in particular on the building industry.”

Financial help

COMPENSATION for the January 2009 damage to the Landes forests from Hurricane Klaus took more than six months to start coming in – but this time the government and insurers are looking to act quicker.

Insurance companies have also agreed that claims of up to €2,000 will be paid swiftly. The initial cost to insurers is estimated at about e1.2 billion. Nicolas Sarkozy has also promised e3 million of government aid for homeowners with insufficient insurance.

At a regional and departmental level, more financial aid is progressively being made available.

Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire has earmarked an immediate €5 million compensation package for farmers, as well as another €3 million for the equally affected oyster farmers.

Similar funding has been promised for the tourist and boat construction industries. Other businesses, like the salters of the Ile de Ré and Ile de Guermande, fall outside these categories (salt panning is classified under mining).

Their only hope is to receive aid under small business compensation schemes. For more information on making insurance claims see our website’s property section.

'Three years to get our farm back'

THE TOLL has been heavy for farmers. An estimated 45,000 hectares of arable land and pasture have been flooded and crops burned by salt in the Vendée and Charente-Maritime alone.

The two major problems facing farmers are salt in the soil and a lack of forage. Fabienne Gachignard, an arable farmer at Saint-Nazaire-sur-Charente near Rochefort in the Charente-Maritime, says 62% of her 124-hectare farm given over to wheat, sunflower and maize was flooded.

“I’m going to have to plough gypsum in, to counteract the salinity, but it could take three years to get back to pre-flood production. I know we’ve been promised financial help, but I’m not counting on it materialising. As for insurance, it’s prohibitive and only covers lost crops. I haven’t even sown my maize yet, so even if I had been insured, I’d have got nothing. But I’m alive, so this is all relative, and others have lost their entire business.”

For Philippe Bégaud, who rears cattle at Saint-Laurent-de-la-Prée, between Rochefort and La Rochelle, only 12 hectares of his 140-hectare farm escaped the floodwaters.

“The problem is different from the Vendée, where sheep drowned in the marshes. Here cattle were still inside, on higher land, but the problem now is feeding them. We were about to put them out to pasture. We can’t do that until the sea defences, the ditches and drainage canals have been repaired or the cattle will wander. Otherwise we have to fence them in, and we’ve no forage left. With salt in the pasture land we won’t even be able to make hay this summer, so the effects are long term.”

In the Vendée 500 sheep drowned. One farmer was left with only the six sheep he had with him at the Paris Salon de l’Agriculture. A spokeswoman for farmers’ union FNSEA said statistics for animal deaths were still being compiled.

“The major problem is that the flooding – 32,165 hectares in the Vendée – means we have no pasture land. And at the end of the winter we have no forage either so we are appealing for help from farmers in other areas, hoping for solidarity.”

The floods are again stirring the long-standing land use debate.

Agronomist and environmentalist turned livestock farmer Bernard Biteau, on Ségolène Royal’s list for the regional elections in Poitou-Charentes, thinks the time has come for a total rethink on land use. Much of the flooded area is drained marshland that has been gradually converted to cereal production over the past 40 years.

However Fabienne Gachignard does not see this as a time to look backwards. “Do we really want to go back to unhealthy marshland? For me, the answer is more diversity. I plan on expanding my poultry business, and just hope late spring frosts won’t put paid to the little sprouting wheat I have left.”

Ageing sea defences in urgent need of repair

THE deadly floods have prompted the government to take action over the poor state of France’s sea defences.

While the responsibility for defending human life rests with the state, ownership of France’s sea defences is split between the state, municipalities and private landowners. Over 3,000km of sea wall are in the hands of unknown owners or associations without the means to pay for the upkeep.

Junior Environment Minister Chantal Joanno has set in motion an emergency plan for consolidating France’s 10,000km of water defences, over a 1,000km of which she says are “in urgent need of repair”.

A task-force has been set up to carry out emergency inspections of the walls in the coming weeks. The group will submit a report to ministers by early May detailing exactly what work needs to be done. The state will pay up to 40% of the cost of repairs.

According to Paul Royer, researcher at Cemagref, (the French Research Institute for Agronomy and the Environment), it will cost on average e1m to repair one single kilometre.
La Rochelle University professor of geography Eric Chauvillon says that the state should have overall responsibility for flood risk, and considers that “the only real solution is for human habitation to draw back from the coast. The
Charente-Maritime coast is one of the areas running the highest flood risk in all of France.”

A similar phenomenon could happen in other major risk areas such as the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the valley of the Aude or the Camargue. The 1,000 km2 of drained marshland dating back to the Middle Ages around Dunkirk may not survive the 21st century. If sea levels rise and human water use increases, scientists believe the sea could again reach Saint Omer – 40km inland from Dunkirk – especially if sea walls are not raised further and pumping facilities increased.

Ten years ago, the Aude burst its banks near the town of Cuxac-d’Aude, flooding a housing estate and killing 35 people. They are still waiting for those flood defences to be repaired, but work should be starting this year.