Large destruction and slow rebuilding, five months after Storm Alex hit villages in South-East France

A picture of a house next to the river Roya, near the city of Breil-sur-Roya in South-East France. Photograph: Anna Schuurmans.

Five months after the devastation Storm Alex brought to the mountains and rivers of the South East of France, the village of Breil-Sur-Roya is still trying to rebuild itself.

The Roya river, which flows through the village, overflowed above its banks and caused large destruction in its immediate vicinity: bridges were washed away, houses were flooded with mud, cars landed in the river and the roads were destroyed.

“I spent eight hours wringing out water from a cloth from a leak in the roof,” says Lyuba Sofronieva, who was there the night of the storm. She described strong winds and heavy rain the whole day and night.

The real shock came the next morning, as she headed outside: “That is when we saw the extent of the damage: cars in the river, the main plaza of the village was under two meters of sand and people were panicking because they couldn’t find their relatives.”

Lyuba decided to set up a local branch of the Secours Populaire Français, a non-profit organization fighting against poverty and societal exclusion in France, to help all the inhabitants who had lost what they had. In the beginning, her organization was set up to give material aid, such as giving furniture to people who lost it all, but over time this shifted to financial aid and providing fresh products to the residents.

In the aftermath of the storm, she also helped organize convoys to the villages higher up in the valley, who weren’t so lucky: she provided some of them with furniture, food or transport down to the cities, unreachable by car or train, as the roads and train tracks had been washed away by the river.

As of February 2021, she said about 75 homes needed her help. She has the support of City Hall and can count on about 10 volunteers to help her out.

A slideshow of the aftermath of the storm, five months after the fact. Photographs: Anna Schuurmans.

“People lost their homes, their businesses, or both: it all ended up in the Roya,” says Stephanie, an employee at La Bonne Auberge, a hotel-restaurant situated inside the city. She does not live in the village, but she saw first hand what damage was wrought by the storm.

“Everything had to be thrown away,” Stephanie says. In the hotel-restaurant, there was a mix mud, sand and water coming from the river, reaching about 60 cm high.

Alongside the river however, the damage was far worse: the trees that bordered the river are gone, some roads are crumbling, and some of the houses have been declared uninhabitable by the authorities.

A house alongside the river Roya. Photograph: Anna Schuurmans

Not all is lost though: “The morale in the village is high, there is good solidarity between the inhabitants and the municipality is amazing. Without them, we would not be here.” says Stephanie, the hotel-restaurant employee.

There was only praise for the mayor and the municipality in her response, who were very present in the community after the floods. “One call to city hall, and it was done, tip top!” she said in a light tone.

Lyuba also praised the efforts of the municipality. They set up psychological help for those who needed it and coordinated the response from the various non-profit organizations coming to help the devastated citizens.

Stephanie said the hotel-restaurant was very quickly compensated for their losses. This was not the case throughout the village, as Lyuba described the situation as a “fucking mess.”

Stephanie did say that some of the inhabitants were to this day still waiting for the insurance experts to assess the extent of the damage, but she saw life just continuing after the flood, with a newfound solidarity between all the people who had lived it.

Lyuba Sofronieva had only one message for anyone who was in the same situation: “Everyone can find themselves from one day to the next with absolutely nothing, solidarity is very important.”

That is one thing both women can agree on: the solidarity between the citizens of Breil-Sur-Roya is to this day incredible and the community is slowly but surely rebuilding itself.

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