A scene of utter destruction in Toulouse.
Repeating events in the Rhône Valley in spring 1856, a very wet June compounded by snowmelt from the Pyrenees fed floodwaters that engulfed Toulouse on 20 June and reached their peak on the 23.
Maréchal Mac-Mahon, French President at the time, uttered this famous expression when he visited Toulouse on 26 June to witness the damage caused by a major flood of the Garonne, more commonly known as the Aïguat* of St Jean.
The Prefect, who accompanied him, was thought to have replied,
“And this is just the surface!”
On the 23 June 1875, the Garonne breached its banks and devastated the city of Toulouse. The district of St Cyprien, built on the inside bend of a meander* of river bore the brunt of the rising water. 200 people died and more than 1,000 buildings were destroyed.
Three of the city’s four bridged were also washed away.
Flood damage in the St Cyprien district, Route de Tournefeuille. The dark stains on the houses are flood lines* showing how high the floodwaters rose.
According to Maurice Pardé*, over 500 people lost their lives along the length of the Garonne, in the city of Agen and throughout South Western France, while other sources refer to 3,000 deaths.
These floods would also extend to the Adour river valley in the Hautes-Pyrénées Department, as well as the Aude.
In Tarbes, the central section of a bridge collapsed, killing two onlookers who were standing there.
Further east, in the Val d’Ariège, river flooding and debris flows* claimed 82 lives.
12 September 1875, the village of St Chinian, in the Hérault, was next to experience a shocking flash flood* so typical of fleeting yet highly intense
Mediterranean episodes. A large thunderstorm broke over the hills above the
Vernazobre river valley, a small affluent of the River Orb. After becoming blocked by a log-jam*, it unleashed a wave that engulfed the medieval village with astounding ferocity, submerging it under 1.5 m of water.
The toll was very heavy, with 97 deaths, 149 houses destroyed, 300 condemned and more than 200 families reduced to a state of misery.
Crops ready for harvest were also destroyed where they stood in the fields.
A villager said, “The water came down from the mountains at blinding speed and cut a path through all obstacles. It stopped at nothing, maiming, uprooting and carrying away everything in its path. It’s natural course took it the Vernazobre which couldn’t hold all the extra water and so it flowed back into the neighbouring streets which turned into torrents. In five to ten minutes, the village was submerged and terror reached its peak.