The French Alps are prone to what is referred to as the “Retours d’est”, or easterly rain-laden weather fronts that spill over from the Italian side of the Alpine chain and, subject to temperature, can bring snow or rain.
In June 1957, downpours peaking on 13 June fell on several mountainous areas of the Tarentaise, the Alpes-Maritimes and especially, the Queyras (05), at the head of the Guil river catchment, which feeds the Durance.
The rain also coincided with a thaw in the thick mountain snow-caps that remained after a long winter. The Queyras was completely cut off and much of the infrastructure was destroyed, including the railway line and many bridges. Villages were engulfed by torrential floods loaded with solid material.
The memories are etched in our minds”
People started shoring up the riverbanks in the upper part of the village but it was pretty futile. The gabions* that we laid were immediately swept away. We looked worriedly at the sky, waiting for the slightest bit of blue sky, hoping that the rain and drizzle would finally stop. People ran through the village shouting, “the river’s about to break its banks any minute”.
Very quickly, we knew that the Cristillan was going to flood and we got out before anyone was injured. We took refuge in La Clapière with the livestock.
By the evening, debris jams* had formed upstream of the village and we couldn’t stop the river flooding Ceillac. When the bridge gave way, the water poured over each side.
Next day, civil defence helicopters came to take the women and children and we took our first ever flight! The water stayed for 13 days and there were torrents in three different places.
We never expected that.
It took all summer to clean up the mess in the village but we kept our spirits up thanks to assistance from the Civil defence.”
Aerial photography greatly advanced during the 2nd World War and by the 1950s could provide a new way of observing floods and their effects.