Blown To The Future

Europeans have never experienced anything quite like their latest bout of killer weather. The passage of last week's unprecedented tandem storms, Martin and Lothar, left more than 100 people dead from drowning, avalanches and other weather-related causes, including a French farmer who was buried alive by wind-tossed bales of hay. In France alone there were at least 83 dead and nine other victims who remained missing late last week. Winds exceeding 200 kilometers per hour broke all existing records in Paris. Baffled meteorologists reported that the force of the winter gales scarcely dissipated as the system swept relentlessly inland from the North Atlantic, spreading a trail of destruction across Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Romania. "There were no models for how this storm behaved," says Patrick Galois of Meteo France, the national weather service. "We've never seen this kind of violence before."

Nearly two thirds of France was declared a disaster zone. The country's power grid and rail system each reported upwards of $80 million in damage. The winds stripped more than a dozen 100-kilogram lead sheets from the dome of the Pantheon in Paris, and Notre Dame lost six of its bell towers. In Chartres a 500-kilo block of stone tore away from the cathedral's steeple and plunged through the roof. In the forests of Alsace, along the German border, the storms destroyed more than 2 million cubic meters of standing timber--twice the volume cut by loggers in an ordinary year. On the palace grounds at Versailles some 10,000 trees were toppled. Among them were a pine planted by Napoleon Bonaparte himself in 1812, and many dating back to the Revolution. The total cost of the devastation across Europe was estimated as high as $5.4 billion.

Most Europeans did their best to shrug off the damage. The task of cleaning up the wreckage forced Parisians to lay aside some of their last-minute preparations for the city's glittering millennium gala. In parts of the city the Seine had overflowed its banks. Still, the party went ahead, fireworks, giant Ferris wheels and all. Canceling it would have been unthinkable.

The question now is whether last week's century-ending "storms of the century" were really such a fluke. Many scientists are convinced that global warming will make the coming century an age of megastorms and freak weather of all sorts, from Biblical droughts to epic blizzards. In a sense, the future may have hit Europe a few days ahead of schedule.