Storm blacks out 400,000 homes

UPDATE: Trains, flights and ferries hit and nuclear power station put on alert as 49 departments on orange alert

A CARGO ship ran aground, 400,000 households were left without electricity, families were evacuated in the Vendée, Blayais nuclear power station in Gironde was on storm alert, trains were paralysed in Pays de la Loire and flights and ferries were cancelled as violent winds and rains lashed France.

The storm, named Joachim, is expected to blow itself out by midnight tonight but it has wreaked havoc across the country with 49 departments on orange alert from Finistère to Corsica.

People have been advised not to leave home if possible but if they have to go out to watch for falling trees and airborne debris.

Violent gusts of up to 140kph on the Ile de Ré, 133kph at Pointe du Raz in Finistère, 126kph near Saint-Nazaire, 110kph at Chouilly in the Marne and 100kph in Lorraine and Doubs were recorded.

In Brittany, 80,000 homes are without electricity in Morbihan - the worst-hit department - while EDF said Finistère has 25,000, Loire-Atlantique up to 40,000 and Vendée 30,000 as winds tore down power lines. Interior Minister Claude Guéant said up to 400,000 homes were affected.

Off the coast, a Maltese-registered freighter with 19 crew aboard ran aground between Lorient and Quimper and a one-kilometre long oil slick is being blown towards the shore. The crew were taken off by helicopter and floating pontoons were being deployed to stop oil spreading.

Ferry travel was affected with Brittany Ferries having to reroute the overnight Portsmouth-St Malo crossing to Roscoff as winds made berthing at St Malo unsafe. The Pont Aven, due to make today's St Malo-Plymouth crossing, was forced to shelter at Bréhec. This afternoon's sailings are hit by a knock-on effect.

On the railways people heading off for the start of the Christmas break have been affected as storm damage has stopped practically all trains in the Pays de la Loire because of debris on the tracks, including a grain silo on the Nantes-Angers line.

SNCF has asked travellers to postpone or delay their journeys if possible. Trains are still running in Brittany with the Rennes-Paris and Brest-Lamballe lines open.

Air services have also been hit with Air France cancelling nearly two dozen flights out of Nantes and Brest and services at Strasbourg also being affected.

In Paris, Orly and Charles-de-Gaulle airports are expecting gusts of up to 120kph and say passengers should check on their flight status. Passengers may also be hit by a strike of security personnel at airports across the country.

Luton and London City airports reported some disruption due to snow, while Heathrow said passengers should check with their airlines.

With memories of storm Xynthia which killed 30 people along the Vendée and Charente coast, pompiers helped evacuate around 50 residents from homes in low-lying areas north of Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez after fears that the nearby dunes would not provide enough protection from 10m waves battering the shore.

In Corsica, firefighters are battling a moorland fire that has already destroyed 300 hectares near the village of Volpajola in the north of the island. No houses are yet affected but the fire is being driven by winds of up to 100kph.

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