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An American in the French Languedoc

The Raging Tides of Extreme Weather



The Great Flood of 1999 still evokes painful memories within the Languedoc.

The calamity and subsequent media coverage exposed the region to an international audience. Swollen rivers and standing water caused billions in property and vineyard damage. The imagery of surging mud rivers transporting overturned bridges and vehicles provided sobering commentary.

Ironically, an unprecedented real estate boom within the region followed the disaster.

What should surprise no one residing permanently within the Languedoc is the region is an inundation waiting to happen and on a seasonal basis.

The Languedoc region boasts a labyrinth network of water passages and river ways. Under normal climatic conditions, this natural system should provide excellent outlets for water diversion and drainage. Most of the year, it does.

Regretfully normal climate within the Languedoc includes a proportional amount of extreme weather conditions. Periodic torrential rains like bursting dams, ferocious Tramontane and Cers winds and vertebrae-aligning lightning storms are the contrasting extremes married to the leisurely scorching summer afternoons. Ménage this threesome in a 72-hour period and you have alchemy for disaster.

In Fabrezan, not a regionally designated flooding zone, we dodged a weather bullet during mid-November 2005. The month, a traditional wet period, was uncharacteristically dry through the initial two weeks.

Then a forecasted three-day storm approached. Its rain was unrelenting for the majority of 48 hours tapping a sharp and steady staccato on the plastic roofing upon our terrace. The river of water surging past our house (on an incline) was not particularly worrisome. I’d observed three precedent storms since my arrival in June of the same year. The torrent obediently follows a course to the sewer lines and snakes its path to the designated outlets of the adjacent Orbieu and Nielle Rivers.

Throughout day two of the downpour, many of the Fabrezan villagers congregate along the bridge on the outskirts of town to view the spectacle of the Orbieu rising. Normally gentle flowing, clear watered and visibly stocked with fish from the bridge view, the Orbieu turns silky brown and petulant when its level rises.

By the dusk of the second day, the river had risen to mid arch level. The visage remained unthreatening. One could view a mounting number of tree trunks free floating along the rivers current.

That evening, the rain continued. The forecast promised a reprieve, but speculation was rampant as to how much additional rainfall could be weathered.

By midnight, the situation turned grave. The water level rose within two meters of the bridge span and flooding had already commenced along the banks of the adjoining Nielle River into bordering vineyards.

Unbeknownst to most slumbering villagers, emergency crews were already closing roads into the village and maintaining a discerning eye towards possible evacuations of lower situated residences. Our house’s higher ground location was personally reassuring, but several friends, already bailing oversaturated drainage lines in their courtyards were potentially in harms way, should the Orbieu overflow.

The stone bridge itself seemed agitated. Eyewitnesses, who dared mount to stare into the swirling abyss, felt insecure on its trembling platform.

Fortunately, the rains stalled during the early morning hours and dissipated the following day. The river levels lowered significantly from the reprieve. Fabrezan was spared significant water damage, although twenty vineyard acres were destroyed, replanted vines from the 1999 catastrophe. Partial asphalt washouts remain our only local reminders of a near miss. Several Languedoc towns and villages were far less fortunate.

There was a noticeable absence of foreign media covering the event.

Fabrezan locals maintain 2005 has been an unusual year for weather. I’ve become skeptical, I believe the threat is annual. Another 24 hours of downpour could have certainly repeated the widespread disaster of 1999.

Languedoc weather is full-blooded and its extremes require time to assimilate. It does not suit all palettes, but is a compulsory price of admission for residency.


Marques Vickers will be contributing monthly columns sharing his experiences as an expatriate in Languedoc.

This article is protected by all international copyright agreements, and reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author.


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