Reporting from Paris — Rescue workers continued to search Monday for victims of a powerful weekend storm that combined with high spring tides to batter France's Atlantic coast, killing at least 62 people in Western Europe.
By Monday evening 51 deaths had been reported in France. Most of the victims drowned in their homes early Sunday morning, officials said. At least 11 more people died in other Western European nations as a result of the storm named Xynthia.
Warnings had been issued by Friday evening in France for people to stay off beaches and coastal roads, but hundreds were surprised in their homes in the middle of the night by surging waters that smashed through aging sea walls.
Those who were able to act quickly scrambled to second floors or rooftops, where they waited hours for rescue workers.
In the badly damaged Charente-Maritime coastal region, most of the 11 killed were elderly people in their homes, officials said.
"The warning was only for strong winds" of up to 99 mph, said Mario Hamelin, 48, who owns hotels on the Ile de Re, an island in Charente-Maritime. "We have winds this strong every year, but . . . what wasn't emphasized by the French government, or weather services, was the fact that [the winds] would be combined with a high tide. A lot of people didn't pay attention to that."
About 40 families whose homes were flooded were being housed for free by the local hotel association, of which Hamelin is president. No official count was available on the number of homes damaged or people displaced. At least eight people remained missing Monday.
The toll left many asking whether an evacuation should have been required, and whether restrictions on coastal construction are adequate.
On a visit to the devastated Vendee and Charente-Maritime regions Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he wanted a full investigation.
"We need to ask how, in France, in the 21st century, families can be surprised in their sleep, die drowned in their home," Sarkozy told French journalists in the vacation town of La Rochelle.
"We were ready to respond to a storm. We weren't ready to respond to such a fast rise in water level," Lt. Col. Patrick Vailli, a spokesman for France's civil service agency, said in an interview.
Vailli said that in the future, a "larger evacuation" would be required in regions expected to face "a similar phenomenon."
Sarkozy promised $4 million to help storm victims and said he would issue a natural catastrophe declaration Tuesday. He also called for a "dike plan" to rebuild the coastal area.
Many of the region's sea walls, including those around the Il de Re, were damaged. Roads were torn, and by Monday night about 70,000 customers remained without electricity.
The dikes, some of them hundreds of years old, were being repaired as quickly as possible, said Frederic Brassac, a sub-prefect who helped lead rescues in Charente-Maritime. But while the tide is high, he said, it is unsafe for residents to return to damaged homes. "It acts a little like a tsunami. . . , " said Brassac. "So we ask people not to go on roads, or leave their homes."
Lauter is a special correspondent.