Flood waters recede in France after damaging Lourdes

TOULOUSE, FRANCE (AFP) - Authorities said Friday that flood waters were receding in southwestern France after claiming three lives and damaging the Catholic pilgrimage site Lourdes.

"The flood's recession has been clearly confirmed," the prefect's office for the Pyrenees-Atlantiques region said in a statement, adding that water levels were expected to return to normal by Friday afternoon.

Many roads remained closed however and some residents were still unable to return to their homes.

The floods this week sent water pouring into the religious sites at Lourdes, forcing thousands of tourists to be evacuated and suspending visits from Tuesday.

But fears the sites would all need to be closed for weeks were allayed on Thursday when officials said the town's celebrated grotto would be accessible to visitors within days.

Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a local peasant girl in 1858, is visited by six million people every year, with the numbers in July and August peaking at up to 40,000 a day.

Authorities were still evaluating the extent of the damage and it was unclear when some of the sanctuaries would be able to re-open.

Three people were killed in the flooding, including a 54-year-old woman found drowned in her car and two elderly people swept away by the waters.