24 Nov 2016

At least five dead in New Caledonia 'catastrophe'

2:41 pm on 24 November 2016

Five people are dead and three people are still missing after flooding and landslides in New Caledonia which the territory's president described as a catastrophe not seen since the 19th century.

Torrential rain caused widespread destruction

Torrential rain caused widespread destruction on the main island's east coast Photo: AFP

Two villages near Houailou, on the main island's east coast, were hit by landslides when about 400 millimetres of rain fell in 12 hours on Tuesday, authorities said. Rescue workers described the area as devastated and unrecognisable.

So far, five bodies - including those of two children - had been recovered. Three people were missing, but there was little hope of finding them alive. Six people were injured.

As many as 500 people had been affected, said Jacqueline Johnston, the chairperson of the French Red Cross in New Caledonia. "Landslides like that have never happened before," she said.

Houailou area in New Caledonia worst hit by deluge

Houailou area in New Caledonia worst hit by deluge Photo: AFP

"There were five houses and the five houses were under the landslide. So we have five people dead, unfortunately," said Ms Johnston. "We still have three missing and we have not very much hope to find them alive now and the place is completely - it's just like after a very heavy cyclone, you wouldn't recognise the place."

The worst-affected area was on tribal customary land where building permits are not required. The area had been identified as prone to slips in 2008 and 2011, and some had started to question what led the slopes to become so unstable.

"There was a mine there quite a few years ago, but there's also been a lot of bushfires and not many trees remain which means that the soil just went down," said Ms Johnston. "There was nothing to stop it."

As a large-scale response swung into action on Wednesday, New Caledonia's president, Philippe Germain, toured the affected area and promised that extraordinary assistance would be made available. The French president, François Hollande, and the prime minister, Manuel Valls, issued statements expressing condolences.

The French overseas minister, Ericka Bareigts, said emergency financial assistance would be made available and money given to those most in need, such as farmers and people without insurance.

Torrential rain caused widespread destruction on the main island's east coast

Torrential rain caused widespread destruction on the main island's east coast Photo: AFP

Ms Johnston said the heavy rain in New Caledonia's east had stopped, but Red Cross teams had been deployed to supply water, help clear debris and provide shelter for those who had lost their homes.

On Thursday, amid calls for France to declare a state of natural disaster to allow for the release of reconstruction funds, collections were being made territory-wide to give basic items, including non-perishable food, to those left homeless and it was announced that schools would remain closed for the week.

However, Ms Johnston said the clean-up operation would be huge, and it could be a matter of starting anew. "The mayor of Houailou yesterday was saying that they would try and build again in a different spot because they've had floods before and they will probably need to move these people to a place further up the mountain."