Floods caused by days of non-stop rain in southwest France caused the closure of most of the Catholic sanctuary of Lourdes Saturday and the evacuation of hundreds of pilgrims, local authorities said.
“We are evacuating all the hotels in the lower town,” an official from the regional prefecture told AFP. “We’ve already brought out 270 and another 236 remain.”
Buses ferried guests from the hotels to a conference centre and a sports complex.
Two campsites were also evacuated and several roads closed around Lourdes, where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous in a grotto in 1858, as the river Gave de Pau burst its banks.
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.
Only the massive basilica, built on higher ground, was still accessible.
The Gave de Pau was still three metres (10 feet) above its usual level Saturday morning, as weather forecasts predicted that the rain that has been falling non-stop since Thursday should continue until Sunday.
A heavy downpour is forecast for Saturday evening and night.
In the same region 8,000 homes were still without electricity after strong winds Thursday and Friday brought down power lines
“I’ve seen nothing like it in 40 years,” said hotel-owner Pierre Barrere as he watched the pilgrims being evacuated.
Catherine Brun from Grenoble in southeast France was told to leave at 8:30 a.m. (0630GMT). She said she had just had time to take her car from the garage before the water suddenly rose.
Rescuers evacuated her mother, who is frail, in a boat some hours later. The two women were taken to another hotel.
Lourdes attracted more than six million visitors last year. The Catholic church recognises 67 miracles linked to it and many disabled or sick people go there to pray for a cure.