Six dead, 500 homeless in rain-lashed Tenerife

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The death toll caused by unprecedented downpours devastating the Spanish island of Tenerife has risen to six amid forecasts of continuing torrential rain in the north of the island.

At least two people are reported missing in the deluge, 30 are being treated in hospital for injuries, some serious, and more than 500 spent the night in a conference centre after their homes and possessions were destroyed .

The authorities called in the army, while hundreds were rescued by helicopter. The south of the island, where the beaches most popular with British visitors are located, escaped the worst of the storm. But Tenerife's main airport of Santa Cruz and ports linking the island to mainland Spain remained closed yesterday.

Streets were turned into raging torrents that dragged people downstream and buried cars beneath mountains of mud. Shops and schools closed and about 70,000 people were left without electricity, telephones or drinking water. Emergency announcements on television and radio had to be suspended when broadcasting studios were flooded. Telephone lines to the emergency services were also cut.

Among those killed was a two-year-old girl crushed in her home when a wall caved in. More than 220 litres of water per square metre fell for three hours during the worst part of the storm.

Miguel Zerolo, Mayor of the island's main city of Santa Cruz, condemned Spain's meteorological institute for its "grave error" in failing to warn of the impending catastrophe. As the storm raged at its fiercest on Sunday evening, forecasters were still predicting only "moderate to strong showers, occasionally stormy", with a maximum rainfall of about one quarter of the actual volume. "It saddens me to think that they can take a spaceship to the Moon but can't predict a spot of bad weather," Mr Zerolo said yesterday.

But weather experts insisted that no technology could have predicted the violence of the rainstorm, caused by the confluence of cold and warm air currents at different altitudes.

Forecasters maintained a flood alert in the Canary Islands. They said the turbulence would persist and head north-east to mainland Spain, subjecting the western region to strong winds and heavy rain.

Mr Zerolo warned people not to try to enter or leave Santa Cruz because the main motorways remained impassible, blocked by landslides of mud and rubble. He advised those planning to return to the northern capital from southern holiday beaches to stay where they were.

Television footage yesterday showed hundreds of stranded holidaymakers, huddled in blankets in the main airport, The cost of the damage is not yet known, but is expected to be enormous.

Mr Zerolo warned of the danger of buildings likely to collapse. The authorities have been assessing the damage and deciding whether to declare the region a disaster area.

The Canary Islands, although famed for their year-round sunshine and mild climate, frequently suffer sudden rainstorms and flooding.

The most recent downpour, in La Palma last November, killed three tourists. Two people died in March 1996 when heavy rains caused rockfalls and mudslides in Santa Cruz and La Palma.