Portuguese soldiers flew into Madeira yesterday to search for survivors after days of torrential rain caused mudslides and the worst flooding to hit the island in 100 years.
At least 42 people died in the floods, including a British tourist, and officials warned the figure is likely to rise because emergency personnel have yet to reach isolated mountain villages. The Briton to die, named unofficially as Pamela Gaines, 50, was killed as she travelled in a taxi with her husband, George, and another British couple. The driver was killed but the other three Britons survived and were treated in hospital.
The flooding began on Saturday morning after the equivalent of a month's rain (165mm) fell in just four hours. Video footage showed rivers of mud and debris sweeping through the streets of the capital, Funchal, as people desperately tried to cling to whatever they could find.
Toby Hughes, a Briton who has lived on the island for four years, said yesterday: "The downtown area has been completely devastated. There are boulders, mud and debris everywhere. Cars have been picked up like bits of paper and strewn through the town. The flood channels are blocked with debris so any new rain is simply going to flood through the streets. The island is hugely reliant on tourism so we need the clean-up operation to happen as quickly and efficiently as possible."
The island, an autonomous republic of Portugal 310 miles off the coast of West Africa, is mountainous and relies on a network of concrete flood channels to divert rainwater from its rapidly expanding towns and holiday resorts, which largely lie along the coast.
Peter Marsland, a Briton who runs a property management company on the island, said: "The drainage channels just could not hold such a huge volume of water. The channel outside our flat got blocked and overflowed very quickly."
There are worries that large numbers of people may have been killed in many underground car-parks, dug out because of the lack of level building space. Mr Marsland added: "I saw footage of people being rescued from a supermarket in Funchal, then I suddenly remembered that there is also a two-storey car-park underneath. It must be under water now and I dread to think what happened to anyone who was down there when the floods hit."
Funchal and the towns further west have been worst hit. Communication networks have been brought down and it has been difficult to contact anyone west of Riberia Brava.
Rescuers are also trying to cut through landslides to get to Curral das Freiras (Nun's Valley), a mountain village of 1,600 people which has been cut off. A military helicopter flew over the village yesterday but could not find anywhere flat enough to land. Pedro Barbosa, deputy chief of the regional civil protection service, told Reuters they contacted villagers by radio, but the number of victims was not yet clear. In Funchal, rescue workers used bulldozers and heavy-lifting equipment in the search for bodies. Military engineers also brought in temporary bridges to replace those destroyed. At least 120 people have been reported injured and a further 300 are in temporary accommodation.
Environmentalists suggested that the intensity of the flooding has been compounded by the urbanisation of the island which, they say, has largely gone unchecked. A statement by the island's Green Party claimed "errors of planning" had allowed people to build on waterways that would have let rainwater escape more quickly, an accusation dismissed by Miguel Albuquerque, the Mayor of Funchal, as "ridiculous".
*Madeira, a Portugese island lying more than 900km from mainland Europe, has been hit by floods in the past, but never as severe as those to arrive with a low pressure system that brought heavy rainstorms this weekend. In the last serious instance in 1993, eight people died