One dead as storm hits French Indian Ocean islandMon, 15 Jan 2024 20:18:16 GMT

Hundreds of thousands of people on France’s Indian Ocean island of Reunion hunkered down in their homes under a strict lockdown on Monday as a devastating storm ripped along its coast, killing one person.Cyclone Belal hit Reunion, one of France’s overseas territories that span the globe from the Caribbean to the Pacific, moving in from the northwest in the morning with “extreme winds”, according to France’s national weather service, Meteo-France.The eye of the storm passed along the northern and northeastern coast in the afternoon and was moving away from the island by the evening,  Meteo-France said, as it headed towards Mauritius.It did not become an intense tropical cyclone, or cause devastation further inland, contrary to earlier fears.French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin will spend Wednesday on the island at the request of President Emmanuel Macron in solidarity with those affected and to support rescue work, his ministry said late Monday.The cyclone “luckily was not the cataclysm we had feared” despite its “impressive” impact, said prefect Jerome Filippini, the island’s top Paris-appointed official.He said a full survey of damage had yet to be completed.But “one homeless person who had not taken shelter” died as a result of the storm in the western settlement of Saint Gilles, the prefecture said earlier in the day.All 870,000 residents of the island located east of Madagascar were to remain indoors until at least Tuesday morning, when authorities would re-evaluate the situation.On the west of the island, fallen trees blocked main roads and several thoroughfares were flooded, an AFP correspondent said.In the Saint-Gilles marina, a large fishing boat had partially sunk.- ‘Red’ alert -The mayor of the northern district of Sainte-Marie, Richard Nirlo, said the area home to some 30,000 people been “badly damaged”.”No neighbourhood has been spared by the wind and rain. The mayor’s office is so damaged it cannot be used until further notice,” he said.The island’s main Roland Garros airport, a short drive away from Sainte-Marie, was to resume flights at 08:00 pm (1600 GMT) on Tuesday, the prefecture said.In preparation for gusty winds authorities initially hoisted the violet-level alert, indicating imminent danger, early on Monday morning, putting all inhabitants — including the emergency services — on strict lockdown.But later Monday, the alert level was downgraded to “red”, a move that allowed security and rescue forces to move around, without, however, lifting the lockdown for the general population.In Saint-Paul, a town of 100,000 in the west of the island, water levels were beginning to drop in the afternoon after flooding in some neighbourhoods.Power cuts had initially prevented pumps from working, but once the alert level went down, emergency services were able to get them to operate, Saint-Paul’s deputy mayor Sebastien Guyon told AFP.”This helped a lot,” he said.- ‘Stay at home’ -Authorities earlier had urged islanders to stock up on food and water and stay indoors for 36 hours. They were told not to leave home “for any reason”, unplug all devices, not use tap water and only use the telephone for an emergency. President Macron took to social media on Sunday to urge residents to stay indoors. “Be careful, stay at home,” he said on X, formerly Twitter.Le Port and La Possession, two towns in the northwest of the island, were spared any significant damage, authorities said, but swollen rivers carried much debris.Some 100,000 homes were without electricity in the afternoon, and many had their water supply or fixed-line telephone services cut.Weather services in Mauritius, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) to the northeast, issued a level 3 weather alert, the second-highest possible, saying there was a “direct threat” to the island from Belal which was “approaching dangerously”.The last major cyclone to hit Reunion was in 2014.In 1989, cyclone Firinga destroyed hundreds of homes and dumped record-breaking rain.