Sunday, February 21, 2010

42 Dead as Teams Search Flooded Madeira

Rescue workers dug through heaps of mud, boulders and debris on Sunday on the Portuguese island of Madeira, searching for victims buried by flash floods and mudslides that had already killed at least 42 people in the popular tourist area. More than 120 others were injured and an unknown number were missing, possibly swept away or smothered, the authorities said, adding that the death toll could still rise. About 250 people were forced to flee their homes and go to shelters. The storm was the worst to hit Madeira, an island in the Atlantic off northwest Africa, since 1993. It lashed the capital, Funchal, on Saturday and turned some streets into raging torrents of liquid brown mud, water and debris. "We heard a very loud noise, like rolling thunder," said Simon Burgbage of Britain. "The ground shook, and then we realized it was water coming down." The flash floods were so powerful they carved paths down mountains and through the city, churning under bridges and even tearing some down. Residents had to cling to railings to avoid being swept away. Cars were consumed by the force of the water, and the streets were littered with the battered shells of overturned vehicles that had been swept downstream. "It was horrible," said Andreas Hoisser, a German tourist. "There were cars on rooftops, there were vans and trucks that had fallen and been totally crushed." 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," said Francisco Ramos, a regional social services spokesman. He added that there were still "great difficulties" with communications on the island because phone lines had been ripped out by the deluge. Firefighters used pumping equipment to try to drain an underground parking garage at a downtown department store close to where the flooding was heaviest. The local authorities feared that shoppers might have been trapped below ground. "The store is totally destroyed, damaged, full of slurry," said the owner, João Andrade. A medical team backed up by divers and rescue experts arrived Sunday on Madeira, the main island in an archipelago of the same name about 550 miles southwest of Lisbon. The plane was also carrying telecommunications equipment.



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