Flooding devastates pilgrimage town of Lourdes

AFP-JIJI

France said Thursday it will declare a state of natural disaster in the southwest of the country after floods claimed three lives and devastated Lourdes.

Fears that the Catholic pilgrimage site could be forced to close its doors to visitors for months receded with the floodwaters Thursday, with church officials insisting that the town’s celebrated grotto will be accessible to visitors within days.

But other sites, including the underground basilica, have been left facing a lengthy cleanup operation after the Gave de Pau, the river that flows through the town, burst its banks for the second time in less than a year.

President Francois Hollande pledged his support Thursday, declaring “the state is there” for Lourdes on a visit to the town.

Local residents have been flooded out and thousands of tourists have had to be evacuated from their inundated hotels.

A spokesman for the Lourdes sanctuaries acknowledged that it could be months before some of them reopen.

Lourdes is visited by some 6 million people every year, with the numbers in July and August reaching a peak of up to 40,000 a day. Many of the visitors are severely ill or handicapped, drawn to the town by the belief that its waters have curative powers. The Catholic Church recognizes 68 miracles linked to the town, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a peasant girl in 1858.

Flooding last October cost an estimated €1.3 million ($1.7 million) in damages, but the cleanup operation this time will be significantly more expensive, according to Thierry Castillo, who is in charge of the Lourdes diocese’s economic affairs.