“It was a Tuesday, market day,” recalls Martine even today. 30 years ago to the day, the town of Vaison-la-Romaine, in the Vaucluse, suffered terrible storms with dramatic consequences: 38 dead and 4 missing, swept away by the waves in a handful of hours. The material toll of the flood amounts to 500 million francs (76 million euros), a campsite was razed, 80 houses destroyed and numerous bridges and infrastructures washed away.
Plunging into her memories, Martine in a trembling voice and “hairs that stand on end”. “It was raining so much, it was like night.” Yet it was almost noon when the deluge hit. It was at this time that Thierry, a 23-year-old volunteer firefighter at the time, stopped his work in public works because of the intense rain. “I leave the warehouse and go back home to see my wife and my little boy, who took his first steps that day. I had water in the garden and Claude Haut, the mayor at the time, who lived in the same housing estate as me, came to see me and said: “Thierry, go to the campsite, it goes up very quickly and I don’t know not what’s going on.” »
Tourists carried away in their caravans
When Thierry, now a volunteer firefighter, arrives on the scene, the campsite, located upstream from the Roman bridge, is nothing more than a vast lake. “There were people on the toilets, in the trees, on their caravans which had wedged themselves against the poplars. And then comes Jean-Pierre, a fishing enthusiast, who had the intelligence to come with his boat. We then started looking for people one by one.
For four to five hours, they go back and forth, refuel the engine. Thierry loses track of time. “It started to be tricky when the water started to come back down, there it was like a siphon, and the caravans started to be swept away. We knew there were people in there who thought they were safe. We saw people leave. »
On the heights of the town, Martine is worried about her brother. “The postman had just passed, he finished his rounds in the Ouvèze”, the river which crosses the city, responsible for this hundred-year flood. She goes downstairs to make sure nothing has happened to her brother, he’s fine. Unlike the two children of one of her friends. “They were climbing on the roof of their house. The mother held her two children in her arms. The current was too strong and she let them go. The waves carried them away, says Martine, breathing heavily. I am marked for life, in my flesh. With each storm, I think about it”.
“We can stop a fire, the water has to pass”
For his part, the volunteer firefighter begins to take the measure of the disaster. “We all worked in isolation. There were no cell phones at that time. In the evening, he goes to the barracks. “Then, in the days that followed, the bodies had to be lifted. There were families in the victims that I knew. I still have that image in my head. That of the gymnasium where I trained transformed into a morgue, the bodies lined up… ”
This devastating flood swept away all the bridges of the city, with the exception of the old Roman bridge which withstood the 17 meters of water height, that is to say 15 meters more than the ordinary level of the Ouvèze. The main tributary of the watercourse is the Toulourenc, a torrent-like river with its gorges. “Toulourenc, in patois, means “all or nothing”, specifies Thierry. Finally in this misfortune, we had a chance: that it happened during the day. The night the balance sheet would have been much more terrible. »
Since then, the city has reviewed its urban plan. The banks have been widened and consolidated. Firefighters have developed an alert system. Precautions which, however, do not guarantee that such a flood will not happen again, but which can contain the damage. “We firefighters, we can stop a fire, the water has to pass”, sums up Thierry. This Tuesday, September 22, 1992, the water passed and took everything away. Except in the memory of those who lived through it.