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Essay: French floods leave heartbreak

Provencal villagers marvel over nature's destruction, mourn their neighbors and blame climate change.

France Flash Floods
Damaged cars are seen in a street in Draguignan, southeastern France, on June 16, 2010. (Sebastien Nogier/Reuters)

DRAGUIGNAN, France — Climate change came so fast that Thierry Teisseire had to smash his front window and push a woman buying farm tools through the jagged glass.

In the nearby hamlet of Rebouillon, Mario and Maria Milese tried to wait out the sudden flood, sheltered in the cabin by their vegetable patch. Both were swept away.

Jean-Jean Riviere, their neighbor, dashed out to rescue his dog, still in his truck. Neither survived.

No one in their wildest dreams suspected the lazy little Nartuby River could turn on them. But the foot of rain that fell Tuesday north of Saint-Tropez killed 19 people.

As a reporter, I routinely flew off to Bangladesh and Mozambique to cover such damage. For this, I needed only my battered Suzuki jeep and a pair of muddy boots.

Rebouillon’s broad village common was aflame with crimson poppies on Monday. Today, it looked like a Chittagong floodplain.

Uprooted trees blocked the archways under Rebouillon’s old stone bridge. Within hours, it gave away, and the bridge vanished in a swirl of tumbling boulders.

Along the river, upended cars lay tangled among rubble that hours earlier had been family homes. Fruit-laden trees were torn away. Fields ready for harvest were washed away.

(Mort Rosenblum/GlobalPost)

As a deluge pounded the surrounding slopes, water cascaded down from every direction. It flooded low-lying Draguignan, rising to 5 feet in places.

“You see this on TV, and it’s always so remote,” Thierry Teisseire’s father, Jean, told me, still stunned a day later. “But here it is, right here. Now.”

It was his 73rd birthday. He had been inside the family store, Dragui-Motoculture, when rain pelted down so hard he decided to go to look around.

“Good thing,” he said. “Seconds later, a wall of water came down and flooded the place. I’m too old to have scrambled out that hole.”

Jean Teisseire looks at the hole he would have had to climb through had he not gone outside moments before water filled his store. (Mort Rosenblum/GlobalPost)

Four cars were washed off his parking lot. Two turned up more than a mile away. Tractors and trailers lay smashed on their sides.

Freak rain was part of it. No one can remember anything like it, certainly not in June when spring showers are over, and planting cycles depend on months of hot sun.

Scientists can quibble, but people whose ancestors have lived in these back Provence hills since Roman times believe what they see: frightening new climate chaos.