Floods in France prompt evacuations in shrine town

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PARIS (AP) — Pilgrims trek by the millions each year to the Roman Catholic shrine in Lourdes, many looking to drink its spring waters reputed for their healing powers. This time, visitors were fleeing a different kind of water — floodwaters — in the southwestern French town.

Rescue teams helped hundreds of pilgrims escape waterlogged hotels on Saturday after heavy rains led the Gave River to overrun its banks — and even wash up into the town's famed grotto, where many Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.

The regional government issued a statement late Saturday saying 427 people had been evacuated from their hotels. The Red Cross and regional authorities provided food and shelter to the escapees, as authorities warned of forecasts for more rain in the region.

In one televised image, a rescuer waded waist-deep into a hotel lobby with a red boat in tow and teams helped elderly visitors inside for a trip to higher ground. Others showed a fast-flowing, white-water river rumbling through the town, and the grotto — or cave — was filled with about 1.5 meters of water, under a niche statute of the Virgin Mary.

Visits to the grotto were temporarily suspended. Officials say the town draws about 6 million visitors a year — mainly looking to see the grotto. The shrine has special meaning for the suffering, many of whom believe its spring water can heal and even work miracles.

Thierry Castillo, director of the nearby Lourdes sanctuary, said visitors had shown "understanding" and predicted that the grotto would remain closed at least through Monday.

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