- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 20, 2010

UPDATED:

FUNCHAL, Madeira Islands — Rescue workers dug through heaps of mud, boulders and debris Sunday in Madeira in search of victims of flash floods and mudslides that already had killed at least 42 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 the death toll still could rise. Another 250 people were forced to flee their homes and go to shelters.

The worst storm to hit the Atlantic Ocean island since 1993 lashed the capital of Funchal on Saturday, turning some streets into raging torrents of liquid brown mud, water and debris.

“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 Great Britain.

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

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 that had been swept downstream littered the streets.

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

The water swept even a heavy fire truck downstream, slamming it into a tree.

The death toll “will likely increase, given the circumstances of this flood,” regional social services spokesman Francisco Ramos said, adding there were still “great difficulties” with communications on the island, since phone lines were ripped out by the deluge.

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

Firefighters used pumping equipment to try to drain an underground parking garage at a downtown department store close to where the heaviest 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,” owner Joao Andrade said.

A medical team backed up by divers and rescue experts arrived Sunday aboard a C-130 transport plane at the archipelago, 550 miles southwest of Lisbon. The plane also carried telecommunications equipment.

The weather improved Sunday morning, 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.

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 largely were unscathed.

But more rain hit later in the day, raising fears of new mudslides on the mountainous island.

Portuguese 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.

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

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.

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.”

Harold Heckle and Paul Logothetis reported from Madrid. Raphael G. Satter in London also contributed to this report.

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