France floods – third person dies as river levels begin to fall

A third person has died in France from the country’s worst flooding in decades, as the death toll across Europe reached at least 17 in a week.

The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, did not give any details about the latest victim of the floods, which caused the river Seine in Paris to rise to 6.1 metres (20ft) overnight.

A 74-year-old man and an 86-year-old woman were killed in flooding in France earlier this week, along with 11 people in Germany, two in Romania and one in Belgium. A further 24 people in France have been injured.

The French environment minister, Ségolène Royal, said she feared more bodies would be found as waters receded in villages in central France – some of which have suffered their worst floods in a century.

The worst appears to be over in the French capital as levels began to fall for the first time in nearly a week. River levels stood at 6.06 metres early on Saturday morning – about 4.5 metres above average levels in Paris. Authorities said it could take up to ten days for the Seine to return to normal levels after the capital’s worst flooding since 1982, though the peak was some way off the record 8.62 metres reached in 1910.

The Louvre and Orsay museums remained closed while curators and volunteers moved 250,000 artworks from basement storage areas threatened by flood waters to higher levels. The national library and the Grand Palais in Paris were also closed.

Bruno Janet, head of modelling at the French environment ministry’s Vigicrues flood watch, said: “We’re now in the stabilisation phase, even if we could still get one or two centimetres more.”

President François Hollande said a state of “natural catastrophe” would be declared when the cabinet meets on Wednesday – a move that would trigger compensation payments. Losses across France could reach more than €600m (£470m), according to France’s association of insurers.

The head of railways operator SNCF said the rail network had suffered catastrophic damage that would cost tens of millions of euros to repair.

Close to a week of heavy rain has caused serious flooding across much of central and northern France, as well as part of Germany, Romania and Belgium, leaving at least 17 people dead and others missing. More than 20,000 people in France have been evacuated since last weekend and about 18,000 homes were without power.

On Friday, Hollande visited the Louvre, which will remain closed until Wednesday, while the Orsay will accept visitors once more from Tuesday.

Emergency services warned people to keep away from dangerous parts of the Seine, but crowds still gathered on Pont Neuf and other bridges to watch the fast-flowing waters or take pictures. “It is a reminder that nature is more powerful than man and we cannot do anything, only wait,” said Gabriel Riboulet, 26, as he took in the scene.