DRAGUIGNAN, France — At least 19 people were killed in flash floods that hit the back hills of the French Riviera on Wednesday and turned streets into rivers of surging, muddy water, officials said.
There was confusion about how many people were missing in the flooding that washed over picturesque towns and left them standing in meters (yards) of brown water, a press officer at the local Var region prefecture said. But probably at least 12 people were unaccounted for, the official said on condition of anonymity in keeping with her job’s regulations.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, visiting the region, said the death toll “unfortunately, may climb.”
The floods swept away cars, trees and parts of houses in a downpour that devastated the picturesque region in the hills behind a portion of the Riviera, a magnet for tourists. Coastal towns where tourists flock, Frejus and Roquebrune, also were hit.
Eleven of the deaths were in Draguignan in the Riviera back hills scattered with olive groves and small vineyards.
Nearly 3,000 rescue workers poured into the region, joining 650 police, the prefecture said. Nearly a dozen helicopters worked overnight Tuesday to evacuate people trapped by floodwaters, which reached about 2 metres (6.5 feet) high in some areas.
It was the second time in less than four months that France has coped with major weather-related disasters. On Feb. 28, at least 52 people were killed when a storm named Xynthia swept through French coastal communities on the Atlantic with waves smashing dikes.
On Wednesday afternoon, about 1,200 people were in shelters, and tens of thousands were without electricity or phone service, the Var government said. More than 89,000 people remained without electricity Wednesday evening.
The Toulon-Hyeres airport, closed for several hours, was reopened, but the train line between Toulon and Nice was shut down, the prefecture said.
The flash flooding started Tuesday evening. Meteo France meteorological service forecast more but lighter rain Wednesday night in the popular tourist region.
“We’ve never seen so much rain in the month of June,” said Patrick Galois of the national weather service. He said some 40 centimetres (16 inches) of rain had fallen in the hardest-hit area of Arcs, near Draguignan. “That corresponds with average rainfall in six months.”
French television broadcast images of walls of muddy brown water slamming over stone walls and coursing through city streets. The flood left cars stacked on one another and ripped the siding off houses.
Residents worked Wednesday to clear mud and water from homes and businesses.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his “first thoughts go out to the victims,” and underscored his “solidarity with the inhabitants of the Var region who have had to go through this very difficult natural disaster,” according to a statement.