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Portugal floods kill 42, some people feared buried

Firefighters and volunteers work Sunday to free a car trapped between two houses by a road where several cars were carried by floodwaters outside Funchal, the Madeira Islands’ capital.

Associated Press

Firefighters and volunteers work Sunday to free a car trapped between two houses by a road where several cars were carried by floodwaters outside Funchal, the Madeira Islands’ capital.

FUNCHAL, Madeira Islands — Rescue workers in Madeira dug through heaps of mud, boulders and debris Sunday, searching for victims buried by floods and mudslides that have killed at least 42 people on the popular Portuguese island.

Residents looking for missing loved ones were directed by local authorities to the resort's international airport, where a makeshift morgue has been set up.

Social services spokesman Francisco Jardim Ramos said not all the bodies had been identified. The center is equipped with psychiatric, psychological and social counseling services, he said.

More than 120 people were injured and an unknown number were missing, possibly swept away or smothered, authorities said, adding the death toll could still rise. Of 248 who were forced to flee their homes for temporary shelters, 85 have been allowed to return home, Ramos said.

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

Madeira, with a population of about 250,000, is the main island of a Portuguese archipelago of the same name in the Atlantic Ocean just over 300 miles off the west coast of Africa.

The flash floods were so powerful they carved paths down mountains and ripped through the city, churning under some bridges and tearing others down. Residents caught in the torrent clung to railings to avoid being swept away. Cars were tossed about by the force of the water.

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

Funchal residents and visitors must now contend with a lack of freshwater until destroyed infrastructure is repaired, the head of water services said.

The death toll "will likely increase, given the circumstances of this flood," Ramos said, adding there were "great difficulties" with communications on the island since phone lines were ripped out by the deluge.

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 was also carrying telecommunications equipment. Once telephone communications are restored, it will be easier to discover who is missing, Ramos said.

The sun began shining Sunday morning, making it easier for rescue workers to move around roads and bridges damaged by floodwaters and littered with uprooted trees, cars and boulders, which hampered 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 were largely unscathed.

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

Portugal floods kill 42, some people feared buried 02/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 21, 2010 9:58pm]
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