Floods and mudslides have killed at least 32 people and left hundreds of others homeless on the Portuguese holiday island of Madeira.
An unusually violent rainstorm, which battered the island for several hours yesterday, accompanied by winds exceeding 100 kilometres an hour, triggered flash flooding.
The island is popular with British tourists seeking winter sun. The Foreign Office said last night that it had received no reports of any Britons caught up in the devastation, but was monitoring the situation closely.
Television footage showed torrents of water and mud inundating the streets of the island's capital, Funchal, dragging along overturned cars and uprooted trees, as residents fled to higher ground. Elsewhere, bridges were destroyed and damaged, and parts of the island were cut off when roads were blocked by mud and rocks.
Phone lines were knocked out, and the emergency services used local radio stations to appeal for off-duty doctors and nurses to report in to help.
"We have confirmed 32 dead, but we're still trying to figure out how many people are missing, so the final death toll can be higher still," said a spokesman for Funchal's civil protection service. "We're overwhelmed by calls from people asking for help."
The island's airport was closed and Funchal's mayor, Miguel Albuquerque, advised the city's 100,000 residents to stay at home if possible.
In addition to the 32 dead, a further 68 people were in hospital, said João Cunha e Silva, vice-president of the Madeira government. The authorities were also last night erecting temporary shelters for those made homeless.
Cathy Sayers, a British holidaymaker, told the BBC there had been no warnings that the floods would be so serious. "I think everyone is extremely shocked that this has happened at this time of year. The drains just cannot cope with the water that's coming down from the mountains – they are overfilled with sludge," she said, before adding that Funchal was like a "ghost town".
Madeira, a Portuguese territory 310 miles off North Africa's Atlantic coast whose famous sons include the explorer Christopher Columbus and, now, the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, was occupied by the British for seven years as a result of the Napoleonic wars. It was returned to Portugal in 1814, but went on to become a favourite destination for British tourists and other northern Europeans.
The island would normally expect 3.5 inches of rain in the average February, spread over 11 days. Portuguese media claimed the storms were the worst to hit Madeira since October 1993, when eight people were killed.
"I am absolutely saddened and shocked with the images, with the consequences of this calamity," said Portugal's Prime Minister, José Socrates, as he prepared to travel to Madeira with his interior minister, Rui Pereira, to assess the damage. Mr Pereira said: "The problem requires a response on the national level," adding that the government in Lisbon was considering declaring a state of emergency.
Madeira's regional president, Alberto João Jardim, has appealed to the European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, who is Portuguese, for emergency aid from the EU.
The port of Funchal is an important stopping-off point for commercial shipping and tourist cruises travelling between Europe and the Caribbean. Tourism accounts for some 20 per cent of the region's gross domestic product.
In 2008, 460 British cruise passengers on the last leg of a round-the-world trip found themselves marooned in Madeira after the island's maritime authorities impounded their ship, the MV Van Gogh, while a £1.5m legal dispute involving the ship's owners was sorted out.