Solidarité: Lansac à la bougie (Solidarity: Lansac by candlelight)
by Basil Howitt
Basil Howitt relives some of the hairy and heartening moments of Tempête Klaus. It raged through the P.-O. at a top speed of 184 km/h – a new record.
I walked along bent in two, looking at the ground. When I raised my head drops of rain machine-gunned my face. Then the wind was so strong I couldn’t move forward and was forced to retreat to regain my balance. It was surreal.
Confined to home in candlelight without any news of the outside world nor of our dear ones, how many of us went to bed by candlelight at 8pm under a double layer of quilts? … We realise that we live in a fragile world. New structures costing millions of euros fly away like wisps of straw. Power lines during each natural catastrophe crumble like a pack of cards. …
Some may recall the apocryphal aftermath of the New York power cuts that lasted for a mere 25 hours in July 1977: nine months later the birth rate rose by 35%.
New Yorkers should have been so lucky! When Tempête Klaus raged his worst recently over South West France and Northern Spain, our tiny village of Lansac in the P.-O. was without power for some 75 hours. However, boosting the birth rate was hardly an option for yours truly: he was temporarily alone and, as a respectable married man, had no-one on hand for such activities!
There we were – my four guests and I – having midday aperos on 24th January. It was one of those sessions that extend well into the afternoon, still going strong at 2.00. Well, we had a lot to catch up on, and with three musicians and a lawyer among us, what do you expect?
After my solitary reheated lunch (my wife Clare was slaving away in the UK) I settled down with L’Indépendant. The power was still off but there was just enough light at the kitchen window to read by.
And it was still cosy because we heat by a superb Norwegian wood-burning stove, a Jøtul, on which we can also simmer all kinds of soups and stews in our bulbous, long-handled toupin.
Our own property, whose small monastic undercroft goes back to the 11th century, was structurally unscathed. In fact our only personal casualties of the storm were purely incidental and trivial.
Just before my guests arrived an unhooked shutter started banging violently. In my rush to pin it back I opened the window without clearing the inside sill and knocked over a huge bowl housing an exotic plant.
The plant survived but the bowl crashed into 1,000 pieces – as did a litre wine jug placed ready to use. Panic stations! So I hid the damage by sweeping everything into the corner and concealing the débris with our rubbish bin – just as the guests knocked on the door. Their rosé had to be served direct from the 5 litre box.
Otherwise we lost nothing in the storm. A far cry from the 74,500 households damaged in the Languedoc-Roussillon alone.
What a doomsday nightmare: tall trees crashing down everywhere because of the rain-softened earth; a giant pylon near Quéribus carrying 400,000 volts mangled on the ground like a meccano set stamped on by a petulant child; crashing tombstones, scattered and battered roofs, dustbins, gates, air vents, placards, awnings, billboards, car-wash units, street lights, you name it.
The final total damage inflicted by Klaus has been estimated at between 1,000,000,000 and 1,400,000,000 euros from between 400,000 and 600,000 claims.
Considerably less than the 7,000,000,000 losses caused by the Tempêtes Lothar and Martin in 1999. Reports suggest that this time the storm was more violent though less widespread, with the deathtoll in France being 11.
Ducks and trees
The worst material and animal losses seem to have been in the Région of Aquitaine. For one duck breeder in the Landes, the death toll among his 6,500 animals reared for their livers amounted to 2,000.
Sheer panic triggered by the roaring of the hurricane choked them to death. One forester in the Landes saw 70% of his 200 hectares of trees uprooted. Although he is insured, the next two generations of his family are, in his own words, foutoues or (in polite terms) ruined.
Things that go bump in the night
Back in Lansac on that first night, the novelty quickly wore off. One purely retrospective comfort is that 217,000 households across nine Départements were in the same predicament – or worse. Many neighbouring villages were also without water.
I didn’t miss the telly because we don’t have one – most evenings we read and listen to music. After struggling to read by candle and torchlight for an hour, I gave up and turned in at about 9. I left the shutters open in case the moon offered any light.
Soon falling asleep, I woke at about 2.00am. The wind, though abated, was still howling but there were strange noises that I normally put down to the fridge thermostat in the adjacent kitchen. I guessed that an old house just makes creepy noises.
So I stoically shrugged them off with a noggin of whisky and soon went back to sleep. The next time I opened my eyes it was already dawn. Never in years have I slept so well!
I got up on the glorious, becalmed morning of 25th and started to worry about the contents of our small freezer. I couldn’t ring or text Clare because all forms of telecommunication were down. So I recovered several pork and lamb chops and decided to make a substantial Beckenoff stew with onions, potatoes and a few juniper berries. It could simmer slowly in our toupin on the Jøtul, and would last for at least three meals.
Then off I went on my usual 5 kilometre constitutional to think about what to do with the rest of the freezer contents. When I returned my problem was solved – though not by me but by our nearest and dearest neighbour Thérèse.
She and her husband Lucien live with their two strapping sons who have never married. Maybe you can’t blame them because their mother’s cooking is out of this world every day of the year – old fashioned cuisine familale with no corners cut.
Anyway, when I got back from my constitutional – known as La Boucle or The Loop – there was Thérèse knocking on my door.
“Ah, there you are, Basile. Bonjour. I’ve come to offer you the use of my freezer. I hope you weren’t kept awake by our generator. I could spare you some space along with what I’ve allocated to M. Bertrand and Mme Rivière. Let’s put your stuff in a bin bag with your name on it. I have some labels with me.”
“As usual you’re so kind and organised,” I said. “I was trying to decide what I would have to throw out.”
So we went through the contents one by one, keeping most things but throwing out some limp, partially thawed vegetables.
And so the kindnesses went on and on, especially since fellow villagers know I no longer drive.
On Monday morning Fabien, another village councillor, called to see if I needed any bread. Shortly before lunchtime my great pal Jacques came round with a ready cooked portion of rich, tasty cassoulet.
Later another neighbour, Gilbert, called just to make sure I was OK, as later did two dear friends who had come a full 12 kilometres from Caudiès. And so it went on for the next two days.
Internet junkie on cold turkey
Power was restored on Tuesday afternoon by means of an EDF generator, though contact with the outside world remained almost impossible all week.
No landline, no internet, a spasmodic and fragile mobile network – it all became intensely stressful and frustrating for me, and also for Clare in Manchester. How on earth was I going to book a seat on the train for our reunion in Barcelona? Or book myself a taxi to Perpignan station?
Worse still my mobile pay-as-you-go was running out of money. In the end, Clare wrote later, “the solution was for me in Manchester to phone our friend Patricia who works in Estagel and lives in Lansac – so she could buy a credit top-up for Basil and take it to him.”
Never, ever, was I so glad to get out of Lansac to the refuge of our tiny maison de village in Rivesaltes, close to Perpignan.
© 2009 Basil Howitt