The rainwater and snowmelt that flooded southwest France just over a week ago has finally receded. The normally tranquil Gave de Pau river rose as much as 15 feet, spilling over its banks and pouring into medieval towns across the Pyrenees. Hit hard and “quite traumatized” was the holy city of Lourdes, the partially subterranean pilgrimage site touristed 6 million devotees annually. Where the pilgrims come by the busload, looking for a miraculous cure for their pain and disease, the city itself now faces months of reclamation and rebuilding.
Surveys by Church and local authorities place damage estimates at “significantly more” than the 1.3 million euros paid for last October’s flooding. Waters didn’t hit the sanctuary then; today, the grotto remains partially flooded, with certain areas covered in more than a foot of mud.
(See the sanctuary’s official Flickr Photostream for pretty intense images of the damage and relief efforts.)
The centennial flooding has severely disrupted this year’s high tourist season. In July and August, a peak 40,000 pilgrims arrive each day. To house the crowds, Lourdes (pop. 15,000) boasts the second highest concentration of hotels after Paris. Yet flood damage to 37 of the city’s 200 hotels has forced the cancellation of thousands of reservations. Some hotels, operated in historic structures on medieval cobblestone streets, will remain closed for many more months. Thousands of Lourdes residents have even been evacuated from their powerless homes, and three deaths have been attributed to the floods. As if anyone needed a reality-check, roads and roofs must be rebuilt before any of the sick can go in search of their own Lourdes miracle.
Instances of unexpected devastation to heritage sites recall important topics in sustainable preservation, site management, and restoration. While forces of nature are somewhat unpredictable and wholly uncontrollable, preventive and mitigative measures can and should be taken, particularly for heavily touristed outdoor sites. Will the sanctuary’s authorities construct flood doors at the entrance to the underground complex? Will the site be restored to an authentic appearance modeled on the original? Or will new design elements and plans be introduced which account for future catastrophe? Does this event portend a stronger movement–by Church, local and state government, and/or heritage preservationists–to protect sites that once did not seem endangered? (Floods at the Austrian village of Hallstatt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have raised similar concerns, as the centuries-old cobblestone town square was destroyed. Still, the cultural landscape of Hallstatt-Dachstein is able to receive funding for its clean up, a privilege of its UNESCO status.)
Regarding the Lourdes pilgrimage, how does the flood affect the psyche of people who visit for their own healing? How will this event serve to attract or deter pilgrims from making the journey?
(Sanctuary officials have set up this Flood Solidarity donation page.)