Surviving a shared danger, Europeans pull together

Post-Christmas storms across Europe blew off roof tiles and crushed

The scaly trunk of an Indian chestnut, the delicately curled twigs of a Southern European ash, the clustered seedpods of a Japanese silver birch: Tree after tree lies sodden and broken across the path in Paris's botanical garden, in a vista of desolation.

Trees from five continents were felled in the garden Dec. 26 by winds that ripped through the city at more than 100 miles an hour. The scene that greets visitors now is a familiar one across northern Europe.

The "storm of the century," as meteorologists have dubbed it, brought gales that tore down trees and power lines, ripped off roofs, and swept away riverbanks across France, Spain, Germany, and Switzerland. It killed more than 80 people, according to official estimates, and forced thousands to evacuate their homes.

France bore the brunt of nature's violence. No sooner had life gotten back to normal in the north of the country when a second wave of hurricane-force winds hit the south the night of Dec. 27.

And somehow, I managed to miss all the excitement. On the 26th I was driving home from the Alps, where my family had spent a week skiing. Heading north we ran into very heavy rain and noticed that a lot of the road signs seemed to be bent backward or blown over. But by the time we reached Paris it was all over.

I had to maneuver the car around a fair number of trees that were blocking the road, but that was the extent of my inconvenience.

Which meant that I woke up the next morning a complete outsider in this city. In the lobby of my apartment building, at the bakery, at the newspaper kiosk (which was fortunate to still be standing), I had no war stories to swap. I had not seen roof tiles flying past my window and nearly decapitating a passerby; I had not been stuck in an elevator by a power cut; I had not found my car crushed beneath a fallen chimney.

Paris that day was suffused with the sense of community that grows from having survived a shared danger, and I was right out of it.

I'll have plenty of time to feel the consequences, though. For a start, the botanical garden is where I normally jog each morning, and now it has been closed indefinitely while gardeners swap their pruning hooks for power saws and dispose of the 200 trees that were torn down.

Even when that is done, "it will be 40 or 50 years before the garden looks the way it did last week," according to Yves-Marie Allain, the park's director.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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