At least three people have been killed as torrential rain flooded towns and villages in France.

Storms and heavy rain have battered the south of the country this week, causing flooding strong enough to sweep away cars.

About 2,000 firefighters and rescue workers have been deployed to the region, where rivers burst their banks, blocking roads and causing significant damage. The town of Béziers was among the hardest hit.

Cars were submerged and the waters of the River Orb rose dangerously beneath a historic bridge as the town saw 198mm (nearly 8in) – or the equivalent of two months’ average rainfall – in just six hours on Wednesday morning.

France’s interior minister, Christophe Castaner, said rescue workers had carried out nearly 1,800 operations since Sunday after parts of southern France were placed on high alert for flash floods.

He called for residents to “take the greatest care, and respect guidelines” from local authorities.

“The toll could clearly have been much heavier considering the intensity of the phenomena we saw,” Environment Minister Eilsabeth Borne said on a visit to Béziers.

It is not known if a 68-year-old woman who was swept away by a torrent outside her front door at Cazouls-d’Hérault, north-east of Béziers, was among those who died.

Local reports suggest the woman was found unconscious in a vineyard, about 100m (330ft) away.

She was then taken by helicopter to hospital in Montpellier. In Hérault, forecasters said 240mm of rain fell in a 24-hour period – a 50-year record.

In a statement, the French interior ministry said the heavy rain was now moving down towards northern Corsica.

“Over the past three days, particularly severe storms have hit the south of France, “ the French Interior Ministry said in a statement.

“The rain continues and is now affecting the eastern coast of Haute-Corse. Everyone must remain vigilant.”

Nine southern France departments in Aude, Aveyron, Gard, Hérault, PyrénéesOrientales, Tarn, Bouches-du-Rhône, Var and Vaucluse were on orange alert on Wednesday – the second-most severe level – for heavy rain and flooding.

On Wednesday, floods also washed away a section of railway line south of Montpellier.