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Lourdes Flooding Forces Pilgrims To Flee
More than 450 pilgrims have been evacuated from the sanctuary of Lourdes in France after heavy flooding hit the area.
Two campsites were also cleared and several roads were closed as the river Gave de Pau burst its banks.
Buses ferried guests from all the hotels in the lower town to a conference centre and a sports complex as officials said the sites would stay closed for several days.
Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous in a Lourdes grotto in 1858. Now millions of visitors, including disabled or sick people, go there every year to pray.
The water was around one metre deep in front of the grotto and 80 centimetres in the avenue du Paradis, where most of the hotels for pilgrims are located.
Only the massive basilica, built on higher ground, was still accessible.
The flooding has been described as the worst for 25 years.
"The space in front of the grotto is entirely covered with water, the altar is under water," said Thierry Castillo, the custodian of the sanctuaries.
"There are torrents of mud," he said, predicting major damage which would be costly to repair.
"I've seen nothing like it in 40 years," said hotel owner Pierre Barrere as he watched the pilgrims being taken to safety.
Catherine Brun from Grenoble in southeast France was told to leave at 8.30am. She said she had just had time to take her car from the garage before the water suddenly rose.
Rescuers evacuated her mother, who is frail, in a boat some hours later. The two women were taken to another hotel.
The sanctuaries are not expected to reopen before Tuesday or Wednesday.