Summer Autumn 2013

After the flood….

How to sum up the past summer ? Catastrophic flooding from the 18-20 June left the valley scrambling to rebuild roads before the summer season, and a proportion of the population wondering how to rebuild houses and businesses.  The psychological impact was significant, people finished an extremely stressful couple of weeks dealing with the emergency and were then straight into the summer season, made more complicated by access paths and roads being cut in places. The ever changing updates of which paths were open, where roads were cut or bridges down meant providing information for tourists was in itself a difficult task. The most basic things needed checking, then rechecking a week later. The biggest was of course the Col du Tourmalet, which was closed until the start of August, frustrating cyclists somewhat, although access from the Campan side was open.

Bastan Chateaux Esterre

Fields beside the Bastan River looking towards the castle above Luz/Esterre.

The questions most posed over the summer were, of course, is this normal, and why did this happen?

So, why indeed?

Barèges avalancheWell… I’m sure everyone who skiied or snowshoed last winter was aware of the enormous amounts of snow that fell. The first to be impacted was Barèges. The village was evacuated in the second week of February, just before the school holidays, after an avalanche arrived in a car park in the centre of town (no-one injured but 15 cars destroyed). Barèges, only developed in the 1800s, is known to be an avalanche prone village (a huge avalanche in 1932 almost wiped the village out) but in the 1960s and 70s so many avalanche protection measures were put in place above the village it was thought almost impossible for such a thing to ever reoccur. Last winter however the protection barriers were all full to overflowing, and that along with the avalanche that did fall, made the authorities sufficiently worried to evacuate for a week in full season. Between Barèges and the Tournabout carpark a huge avalanche fell twice, blocking the river. Of course the river eventually made its way underneath, but this blockage which lasted well into summer, would contribute to the severity of the flooding in June.

Pylon telecabineCauterets in the neighbouring valley, which has slopes in a north facing bowl, had the world record for snow accumulation in the middle of the winter! On the 6th February 2013 there was 5.50m accumulated at the top of Cauterets ski area, and similar levels in neighbouring ski stations. For a couple of weeks they enjoyed the notoriety of this fact, and then a pylon of the cable car linking the village to the ski area shifted. Too much snow. The cable car needed to be shut and the an old cable car from a higher plateau put back into service. This seriously impacted Cauterets’ ski season – with a significant loss of revenue. Luz Ardiden also had difficulties with a pylon on the main six man chair shifting under the weight of the ice above it.

What does this tell us? Basically that the people building these recently installed lifts were not expecting to ever again have such snow accumulation. In the ‘old days’ each pylon was built with an bow in front of it (étrave in French). This is just like the bow of a ship – a point built above the pylon to divert the snow to the side of the pylon so snow, which turns to ice, doesn’t accumulate above it. That these were not built above these newly installed lifts was of course a cost cutting measure, but one considered reasonable given the snow conditions of the last 20 years.

Col-du-Tourmalet_mai_2013To add to all this snow, once winter officially ended spring was extremely cold, so instead of all that accumulated snow melting slowly over April and May as usually happens, the spring rains meant spring snow above 2000m. The Col du Tourmalet (2114m) had an extraordinary 11m snow accumulated at the end of May. From mid-May efforts were made to clear the Tourmalet to allow cyclist through. Conditions were so difficult the effort was abandoned. Finally at the start of June the weather started warming and the snow slowly melting.

The road to Barèges leaving Esterre.On the 16th June, the wind turned and blew from the south. This is called ‘La Balaguere‘ here. It is a common occurrence and brings first warm, and then wet air from Spain and the Atlantic. Sometimes it even rains red dust from the Sahara (or so people tell me!). Sunday 16th June was a glorious wonderfully warm and sunny day, which seemed to finally herald the start of summer. But La Balaguere inevitably brings rain. On Monday the 17th it began to rain lightly, and by Tuesday 18th June it was a deluge. After the spring rains the ground was soaked, the water table exceptionally high, as if the entire mountain was full. So all the rain simply had nowhere to go. And warm wet rain is the fastest thing to melt all that snow up high. All the factors were in place – and the 100 year flood landed on us.

The first three days were simply shock, watching people realise more or less slowly that the whole landscape was changing around them – that things would not ever be quite the same, and that the damage would be huge. The shock of no electricity, no running water, no Les Templiers washing uprestaurants open to feed tourists who were here. In Hotel Les Templiers we ferried water from Esquieze where they still had their connection. Toilet flushing seriously limited. Washing up done by first wiping everything clean and using a tiny amount of water to wash and rinse. No computer to let people know that their reservation would or would not be OK. The shock of having to decide what to do two weeks before the real rush of the summer season.

The stress of this period is still being felt. Too many funerals this summer were an indirect consequence of the flooding and the following stress. Car accidents, suicides, heart attacks, old age that was hurried along. Houses left damaged are only now beginning to be repaired, and winter is again upon us. Many continue to wait for the insurance companies and the state to decide on a number. The damage is huge and the public services will be repairing things for years to come.

HRP 4 july 2013 502What is extraordinary is that for the most part our tourists over the summer were very little impacted. Most went about their activities not really noticing. And that situation will continue this winter. All the main access roads are repaired, the last being Cauterets, a huge and complicated project. The ski stations are open, the mountains are beautiful and activities are all continuing as usual. What the tourists sense, but can’t quite grasp, is what actually happened – how it felt to be here, and how it feels to continue living here knowing the valley will be dealing with the consequences in some form or another for years to come. As in many beautiful places there is an element of risk and uncertainty in the landscape itself. We are drawn to it, and tourists enjoy the temporary sense of danger and survival. Locals are inevitably more cautious, knowing they must live with the dangers, not just visit them.

Adagas_4_dec_gavarnieWe finished the summer with a lovely warm October. November came and the first snowfalls up high with it. And now winter  is here. Cauterets whose road was essentially wiped out by the flood had a party last week to celebrate the new road being finished – a rebirth of sorts for the town. The road to Barèges, also hugely damaged, is now being calling the motorway because it is so new, wide and well surfaced!

After 10 days of very cold and snowy weather we are now enjoying glorious blue skies and crisp clear days. The ski stations all opened early. The scenery is beautiful. We’ve just had another gorgeous Sunday, this time cold and clear with snow everywhere. It was the town fete day. Happy tourists filled all those new roads, in a hurry to be up for their first day skiing in wonderful conditions. A day to heal the wounds.