Freak hailstorms prompt French authorities to declare 'natural emergency'

Henry Samuel
Hailstones as wide as 7cm smashed vineyards, crops and orchards in the Drome département, southeastern France over the weekend - CHRISTOPHE PETRILLO

Freak storms hurled hailstones the size of ping-pong balls onto crops, orchards and vineyards in southeastern France over the weekend causing widespread damage and prompting authorities to declare a state of “natural emergency”.

Meteorologists warn that the phenomenon risks becoming increasingly frequent due to extreme weather conditions linked to climate change.

In tears, Aurélien Esprit, a fruit grower in Pont-de-l’Isère in the Drome area filmed the deluge on his apple orchard on Facebook, saying: “The sky has fallen on our heads and the year stops here for us.”

The hailstones bore holes through netting above the trees to hammer the fruit below, turning much of it to pulp. “I don't think I'm going to make it this time," he said.

"Pretty much my entire harvest is ruined," said Gregory Chardon who grows apricots, peaches and cherries at his farm in La Roche-de-Glun in the Drome department, about an hour's drive south of Lyon.

Huge hailstones wreaked devastation on crops in southeastern France over the weekend Credit: PHILIPPE DESMAZES /AFP

"The damage is enormous and widely spread - cereals, greenhouse and vegetable farms, and vineyards as well," Mr Chardon said. Didier Guillaume, the agriculture minister, said the state would declare a natural emergency to enable farmers to receive insurance payments to cover their huge losses.

"It's catastrophic, I've rarely seen scenes like this," Mr Guillaume told BFM television while touring the area Sunday.

"It's unthinkable that farmers would be forced into bankruptcy because of this.”

The hailstones, some 7cm wide, also wreaked destruction on part of the Saint-Joseph appellation vineyards in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region and reportedly wiped out half of the Croze-Hermitage appellation's harvest, despite it being equipped with anti-hail devices.

"In 35 years, I've never seen such violence," said Pierre Combat, president of the local wine inspection unit.

Vineyards, including half of the Croze-Hermitage harvest, have been devastated by hail in southeastern France Credit: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP

The epicentre of the storm was at Romas-sur-Isere, where the hail smashed car windscreens and damaged dozens of roofs and floodwaters filled the streets.

In the neighbouring Haute-Savoie region, a 51-year-old German woman was a killed after a tree fell on her camper during the storm. Rescue workers responded to hundreds of calls for help and officials said 10 people were injured.

“We were warned there would be a storm but nobody was prepared for this,” said a resident called Arlette, 83.

“It was the apocalypse. Everything went black.”

Robert Vautard, climatologist and director of research at CNRS and the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute, said that while the phenomenon was not unprecedented, this type of event could become more frequent due to climate change.

He said that while the formation of hailstorms was very hard to predict, “the weather conditions that lead to these stormy phenomena, in general, are destined to become more frequent, particularly with temperature rises that bring water vapour into the atmosphere and more downfalls as a result".

In southern France, he said that intense rainfall episodes had risen by 20 per cent in the past 50 years “due to climate change”.