France assesses damage as Lourdes floodwaters abate

TOULOUSE  - A massive cleanup was under way in the French pilgrimage town of Lourdes on Sunday as firefighters pumped water from its famed Catholic sanctuaries after flooding forced the evacuation of hundreds of pilgrims.The waters from days of nonstop rain in the region had begun to recede but the main places of worship remained closed to the public.Thierry Castillo, the custodian of the sanctuaries, told AFP that the estimate of the damages ran into "hundreds of millions of euros."Pope Benedict XVI evoked the flooding at a special mass Sunday in the Vatican where he named seven new saints, saying: "Let us turn to the Virgin Mary with a thought for Lourdes, the victim of flash floods which inundated the grotto where the Madonna had appeared."The national weather service lifted the "orange alert" for rain that it had issued for the area, but left in place an "orange warning" for floods. "The waters rose between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am, but less than Saturday morning. The floods are currently receding. Things are returning to normal. There's no major worry anymore," said David Ribeiro, a sub-prefect of the region, told AFP.Several areas in the town, including a grotto which attracts millions of visitors annually, were inundated on Saturday as the river Gave de Pau burst its banks, leading to the closure of the main places of worship.Many of the pilgrims are drawn by the spring waters of the shrine, which the devout believe can heal and even work miracles.Buses ferried guests from all the hotels in the lower town to a conference centre and a sports complex on Saturday. Two campsites were also evacuated and several roads closed in Lourdes, where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous in a cave in 1858.The water was around one metre (three feet) deep in front of the grotto and 80 centimetres in the avenue du Paradis, where most of the hotels for pilgrims are located, after what officials said was the worst flooding in 25 years.On Sunday, the waters had receded from the streets but in many places left mud and slush up to 10 centimetres high.The body supervising the sanctuaries said a hydro-electricity unit providing power to the shrines had been badly damaged as well as two pedestrian walkways on the side of the river. "There has been serious damage," said Castillo, the custodian of the sanctuaries, adding that the electricity unit had been battered "by two tree trunks transported by the Gave de Pau."Entry to the sanctuaries was barred, and many visitors voiced disappointment, like Laura Generini, an Italian who turned 39 on Sunday."I hope I will be able to pray at the grotto before I leave," said Generini, who came from Florence. Others were undaunted."We will return in spring," said Eric Alves d'Olivera, from the southern French city of Montpellier.Shops hawking souvenirs were however open on Sunday, and some owners complained that the reaction to the flash floods was too heavy-handed and hurt their business."There is great panic over something not that big. We have seen worse like in 1982," said Lise Aldaz, who owns a souvenir shop."Luckily this came at the end of the season," she said. "It's sad for the people, especially the foreign visitors."

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