After the Storms—Relief Work in France


FRANÇOISE opened the door to get some logs for the fireplace. “I just couldn’t believe my eyes,” she recalls. “There was water up to the doorstep, and a huge wave was coming through the garden gate.” Her husband, Thierry, with water up to his neck, fetched a ladder from the garage. The family reached the attic, where he cut an opening in the roof. Soaked and terrified, the couple and their three children waited four long hours to be rescued. Finally, a French police helicopter located them and winched them to safety.

Swollen by torrential rain, rivers overflowed their banks, breaking dikes and destroying bridges. Waves of muddy water, sometimes over 30 feet [10 m] high, swept away everything in their path. More than 30 people were killed in the storm—trapped in their cars or drowned in their sleep. One rescued victim likened the horrific November night to the “end of time.” A whole region of southwestern France—329 towns and villages—was declared a disaster area.

Worse Was Yet to Come

The southwest was still dressing its wounds when disaster struck again. An exceptionally strong depression over the Atlantic Ocean generated hurricane-force winds. The first gale swept across northern France on December 26, 1999, and the second devastated the south the following night. Wind speeds of over 125 miles per hour [200 km/hr] were recorded. According to official registers,  France has not had such a storm since at least the 17th century.

Hélène was eight months pregnant when the gale hit. “I was extremely scared,” she recalls. “My husband was returning home on his motorcycle, and I could see branches flying everywhere outside. I couldn’t help but think that he would never see his baby. My husband had hardly arrived when water started to rise in our home. We had to jump out the window.”

In France, at least 90 people died. They either drowned or were struck by falling roof tiles, chimneys, or trees. Hundreds of others were badly injured, including a number of civilian and army rescuers. The gales also affected neighboring countries, killing over 40 people in Britain, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland.


Of Metropolitan France’s 96 administrative departments, 69 were officially declared “natural disaster sites.” Damage has been estimated at some 70 billion francs (11 billion dollars). The devastation in some towns, villages, and ports reminded onlookers of a war zone. Roads and railways were blocked by fallen trees or electrical pylons. Roofs were ripped from buildings, construction cranes toppled, and boats tossed up onto quays. Thousands of market gardeners lost their means of livelihood, as greenhouses and orchards were destroyed.

In just a few hours, the wind wreaked havoc on France’s forests and parks, razing hundreds of thousands of acres of woodland. According to the French National Forest Office, an estimated 300 million trees were destroyed. Imposing centuries-old trees were uprooted or snapped like matchsticks. The wind tore huge swaths through the forests of Aquitaine and Lorraine.

“On the day after the storm, I went into the woods,” said Bernard, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who works as a forest warden. “It was astonishing. Confronted with such a sight, you can’t remain unmoved! Here, 80 percent of my congregation depend on the forest for their  living. People, especially the elderly, are deeply shocked.” On the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, 10,000 trees were felled. “It will take two centuries for the park to recover its former appearance,” lamented one of the head gardeners.

As power lines fell, more than one sixth of the population in France was plunged into darkness. Despite the heroic efforts of public services, tens of thousands of people were still without electricity or telephone service two weeks after the storms. Some small villages were totally cut off. Families forced to draw water from wells and to use candles felt as if they were living one hundred years ago rather than at the threshold of the 21st century.

The storms did not spare public buildings, châteaus, or cathedrals. Numerous religious edifices, including 15 Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses, were damaged. In some places meetings were held by candlelight or with kerosene lamps.

Approximately 2,000 families of Jehovah’s Witnesses suffered storm damage to their property, ranging from fallen trees or lost roof tiles to homes that were completely destroyed when rivers overflowed their banks. Several Witnesses were injured. Tragically, in the Charente region, a 77-year-old Witness drowned as his helpless wife looked on. Others had a close brush with death. Gilbert, aged 70, recalls: “It’s a miracle that I wasn’t killed. The door burst open, and waters surged in with incredible force. I immediately found myself in five feet [a meter and a half] of water. I was saved by hanging onto my wardrobe.”

Providing Needed Help

The storms generated extraordinary solidarity in France and throughout Europe. The newspaper Le Midi libre observed: “There are times when charity is almost obligatory, whether it is engaged in  spontaneously, out of friendship, or because of conscience.”

Immediately after the storms, rescue committees of Jehovah’s Witnesses were set up to help members of local congregations as well as others affected by the disaster. Regional Building Committees, normally used to construct Kingdom Halls, organized teams of volunteers. After the November storm in the southwest, 3,000 Witnesses participated in the rescue and cleanup work, helping the victims remove the mud and water that had flooded their homes. Witnesses were among the first volunteers to arrive in some villages. Public buildings, such as schools, post offices, town halls, homes for the elderly, and even a cemetery, were cleaned up by the Witnesses. In many cases they worked alongside relief services.

 Help was extended to all, regardless of their religious beliefs. “We helped out the village priest. We cleaned the basement of his house,” observed one Witness. With regard to others who received Witness aid, he added: “People viewed us as if we had fallen from heaven to help them out.” One official said: “You might see it as their way of reading the Gospel and helping their neighbor. I think that those who came lived the Gospel and their religion.” A Witness volunteer commented: “Your heart moves you to come and help like this. It’s a real pleasure to be able to do something for our neighbors.”

After the double gale of December, dozens of Witness families were out of contact with their Christian brothers for several days. Under the supervision of traveling overseers and local elders, relief aid was organized. Blocked roads and dead phone lines sometimes made it impossible to reach friends living just a few miles away. To help isolated members of their congregation, some Witnesses crossed devastated woods on foot or by bicycle, despite the very real risk of falling trees. Once again, volunteers worked hard cleaning schools, libraries, campsites, and neighbors’ homes and unblocking forest trails.

Creating “a Bubble of Love”

Many victims of these catastrophes, especially young children and the elderly, were traumatized by the experience. Those who lost their home or a loved one will need much time and the support of family and friends to rebuild their lives. Following the flooding in the Aude region, Dr. Gabriel Cottin, from a psycho-medical emergency committee, noted: “Any support from people of the same religious body as the victim is also considerably helpful.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses view providing such aid as a moral and Scriptural obligation. “There should be no division in the body [of the true Christian community],” stated the apostle Paul. “Its members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the other members suffer with it.”—1 Corinthians 12:25, 26.

“In the hours following the storm, a dozen Christian brothers and sisters came to our home to help clean everything,” says Hélène, mentioned earlier, who is now the mother of a lively baby girl. “Even Witnesses who had themselves been affected by the storm came to help us. The help was so wonderful—spontaneous and from the heart!”

Odette, whose home was destroyed in the flooding, said of fellow Witnesses: “They greatly comforted me. You just can’t express what you feel. I am very, very moved by all that was done for me.” Another summed up the feelings of many by exclaiming in appreciation: “We are really in a bubble of love!”

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In mid-December, just before the storms, the supertanker Erika sank in heavy seas about 30 miles [50 km] off France’s west coast, spilling 10,000 tons of oil into the waters. Some 250 miles [400 km] of shoreline from Brittany to Vendée was polluted. The storm aggravated this ecological disaster by whipping the oil into a multitude of small gluey slicks, spreading the pollution, and making its removal even more difficult. Thousands of volunteers, young and old, came from all over France to help clean this viscous fuel from the rocks and sand.

The accident has caused serious ecological maritime contamination. The oyster and shellfish industries have been badly affected. According to ornithologists, at least 400,000 seabirds—puffins, grebes, gannets, and especially guillemots—have died. That is up to ten times the number that died after the supertanker Amoco Cadiz ran aground off Brittany in March 1978. Many of the birds were wintering on France’s shores after migrating from England, Ireland, and Scotland. The director of the Rochefort Bird Protection League commented: “It’s a catastrophic oil slick. It is by far the worst that we have ever seen. . . . We fear that rare colonies of birds will be weakened or even eliminated from French shores.”

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© La Marine Nationale, France

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Hundreds were rescued by helicopter, as here in Cuxac d’Aude

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In the middle of ruined vineyards, a crippled railway line now leads nowhere

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Hundreds of crushed cars dotted the landscape

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In Villedaigne this man was trapped for seven hours

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J.-M Colombier

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Pine trees snapped like matchsticks in the Creuse department

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© Chareyton/La Montagne/MAXPPP

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In the gardens of the Palace of Versailles alone, 10,000 trees were felled

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© Charles Platiau/Reuters/MAXPPP

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The morning after, in Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives, Normandy

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© M. Daniau/AFP

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Teams of Jehovah’s Witnesses cleaning a home for the elderly in La Redorte (above) and the town hall of Raissac d’Aude (right)