Floods close Lourdes pilgrimage site in Pyrenees

The sanctuary of Lourdes flooded, in Lourdes, southwestern France, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. French rescue services and police are evacuating hundreds of pilgrims from hotels threatened by floodwaters from a rain-swollen river in the Roman Catholic shrine town of Lourdes. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
The sanctuary of Lourdes flooded, in Lourdes, southwestern France, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. French rescue services and police are evacuating hundreds of pilgrims from hotels threatened by floodwaters from a rain-swollen river in the Roman Catholic shrine town of Lourdes. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

LOURDES, France (AP) — Heavy floods in southwest France have left two dead and forced the closure of the Catholic pilgrimage site in Lourdes and the evacuation of pilgrims from nearby hotels.

Muddy floodwaters swirled Wednesday in the grotto where nearly 6 million believers from around the world, many gravely ill, come every year seeking miracles and healing. It has been a major pilgrimage site since a French girl’s vision of the Virgin Mary there in 1858.

Heavy rains around the region inundated town centers and swelled the Gave de Pau river, forcing road closures.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls said on BFM television that a man in his seventies died Wednesday, swept away by the river. The Interior Ministry says it is the second person who has died in this week’s rains.

The spokesman for the Lourdes pilgrimage complex, Mathias Terrier said that the site in the foothills of the Pyrenees wasn’t likely to reopen before the end of the week.

Rescue services evacuated hundreds of people from nearby hotels. Authorities were particularly concerned with bringing weak and sick pilgrims to safety.

“We need more reinforcements in the area to face these floods, which are really exceptional,” Valls said while visiting Lourdes on Wednesday. He said days of sustained rains and sudden snowmelt made the flooding worse, and left some villages isolated.

The website for the pilgrimage complex, which includes several buildings and a sanctuary nestled beneath a rocky hillside, carried a dramatic rundown of the rising waters.

Throughout Tuesday, masses were gradually cancelled. One by one, entrances to the sanctuary were cordoned off. The live video feed of the grotto went down. Then the electricity was cut off, and then phones.

“A vision of the apocalypse in the Sainte Bernadette Church, where the big movable partition is threatening to fall. The water has risen above the stairs of the choir,” read one announcement.

Terrier said waters reached 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) in the grotto. A group of 3,000 children scheduled to come for the day Wednesday were told to stay away. Volunteers offered to help clean up the site when the waters recede.

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Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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