At Least 40 Die, as Floods, Mudslides Strike Island of Madeira

February 22, 2010

Rescue workers dug frantically Sunday to free cars and homes buried under heaps of mud in Madeira, after torrential flash floods and mudslides killed at least 40 people on the popular Portuguese island.

More than 120 others were injured and an unknown number were missing, possibly swept away or smothered, authorities said, adding that they expected the death toll to rise.

Heavy rain lashed the island Saturday, turning some streets in capital of Funchal into raging rivers of mud, water and debris. The storm – the worst to hit the island since 1993 – also displaced 250 people.

“We heard a very loud noise, like rolling thunder, the ground shook and then we realized it was water coming down,” said Simon Burgbage, of Britain.

Cars that had been swept downhill by muddy waters had landed, crumpled, on the rooftops of houses downstream. Rescue teams who had dug out one car from chocolate brown slime were seen working inside it, possibly to recover more bodies.

“It was horrible, there were cars on rooftops, there were vans and trucks that had fallen and been totally crushed,” said German tourist Andreas Hoisser.

The death toll “will likely increase, given the circumstances of this flood,” regional social services spokesman Francisco Ramos said, adding that there were “great difficulties” in communications.

Firefighters used pumping equipment to try to drain an underground car park at a downtown department store close to where the heaviest flow of floodwaters descended. Local authorities feared shoppers may have been trapped below ground by the muddy deluge. “The store is totally destroyed, damaged, full of slurry,” said owner Joao Andrade.

The flash floods were so powerful they carved their own paths down mountains and through the city, churning under bridges and even tearing some down. Residents had to cling to railings to make sure they weren’t swept away. Cars were consumed by the force of the water, and the battered shells of overturned vehicles littered the streets.

Rescue workers wearing helmets helped people cross at some places where the flow of the water wasn’t so strong. The water swept even a heavy fire truck downstream, slamming it into a tree, while rescuers on inflatable rafts navigated through streets looking for trapped residents.

“People are scared, some have lost loved ones and things are very complicated because of that,” said Madeira-born Luisa Jardin.

The weather improved Sunday, making it easier for rescue workers to move around. Still, some roads and bridges were washed away and others were littered with uprooted trees, cars and boulders, hampering search and rescue efforts.

Prime Minister Jose Socrates said he was “profoundly shocked” by the severity of the floods and promised the government would help Madeira recover as quickly as possible.

A medical team backed up by divers and rescue experts was being sent Sunday aboard a C-130 transport plane to the archipelago, 550 miles (900 kilometers) southwest of Lisbon. The plane was also carrying telecommunications equipment, since the flash floods also ripped out phone lines.

Madeira is the main island of a Portuguese archipelago of the same name, in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of Africa. The island is popular with British tourists.

The British Foreign Office in London said it was “urgently investigating” reports that a British national had gone missing in the flooding. It also said a small number of Britons had been hospitalized on Madeira.

Army units based on the island mobilized rescue teams, debris removal crews, bridge specialists and two helicopters to help with the disaster.

By midday Sunday tourists could be seen strolling and taking photographs in Funchal. Streets just a few yards away from the channels where the muddy deluge raced toward the sea were largely unscathed.

The island’s most famous son, Real Madrid football star Cristiano Ronaldo, was horrified by the floods. “Nobody can remain indifferent to the disaster,” he told journalists in Madrid. “I want to express my willingness to, as far as I can, help agencies and authorities to overcome the effects of this devastation.”

Associated Press writers Harold Heckle in Madrid and Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report.

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