Cleaning Up Xynthia Proves a Can of Worms

Vendée - in the eye of the February storm

Vendée – in the eye of the February storm

Nearly two months after Storm Xynthia killed 53 and wreaked havoc across swathes of Western France and towns and villages along the Atlantic Coast, the area remains rent by anger and controversy.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Paris announced that certain affected coastal areas would be declared uninhabitable — black zones — and some 1,500 homes in Loire-Atlantique, the Vendée and Charente-Maritime would be destroyed.

This was seen as an indictment of regional and local planning powers and trampling on jealously-guarded local decision-making and stirred angry protest from home owners who took to the streets. Police said some 450 marched in late April in the Ile de Ré, Charente-Maritime, to demand “dialogue” with authorities over the black rezoning decisions. In the Vendee, more than 600 marched in La Faute-sur-Mer and Osten-sur-Mer, the two municipalities in the department worst hit by the storm, to protest against black zones and decisions formally to declare the area non-habitable. Such a decision has significant planning and insurance implications.

The residents of the two municipalities launched hundreds of hot air balloons into the sky to underline their concern about centrally made decisions to raze their damaged homes.

Initially local inspectors and damage assessors decided 11 houses in the old quarter of La Lauzière and in Nieul-sur-Mer, north of La Rochelle, and ten in Loix on the Ile-de-Ré were too damaged to be rebuilt, the mayors of the municipalities concerned said.

Lionel Quillet the Mayor of Loix expressed satisfaction that after his council and residents had protested, the original 60 houses in the orange zone scheduled for reclassification as a black zone and thus for demolition, had been cut back to only 10.

Earlier PM François Fillon urged the federation of insurance companies to settle storm victims claims within 30 days rather than the normal 3-month period.

The black zone as declared recommends total destruction of 915 homes in the Vendée and 595 in Charente-Maritime and government said the aim was to get quick compensation for owners wishing to leave their homes. “The zoning will allow for expropriation, where appropriate and when there is no agreement, the PM said.

As anger mounted over the way the zoning was being implemented and amid allegations that the assessors had not done a through job, Marie-Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate in the 2007 French presidential election addressed an “open letter” to President Nicolas Sarkozy calling for “suspension of zoning” and a dialogue with those affected.

Jean-Louis Leonard, the UMP deputy mayor of Châtelaillon-Plage in Charente Maritime described the implementation of “black zones as “unenforceable”, adding that in his view “in ten years time we will still have people living in black zones which will undergo adjustments and adaptations on technical grounds and under the pressure of lots of litigation. I know it is difficult for Paris to admit their services on the ground have not done a good job but we have highlighted a number of errors that show that work was either shoddy or poorly controlled,” he added.

Meanwhile government promised there would be no short changing of the victims of the disaster. The Economy Ministry said there will be no “haircut” in compensation payable to those losing their homes through demolition. He added that the discount usually applied by insurance companies when a house is rebuilt elsewhere, will be “shared between insurers and the State, via a central reinsurance fund. The settlement discount can be as high as 20% of the amount needed for rebuilding when a victim uses an insurance payout to rebuild elsewhere.

Jean-Louis Borloo, Minister for Ecology noted that in the black zones “there is a clear problem of property values and of invested wealth. The state will guarantee the value of the affected assets and as an exceptional measure examine plot by plot, house by house, the known risks, to ensure settlements are reached under the law” he said in answer to those protesting at the handling of the aftermath to date.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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