New mudslide alert in Madeira as Portugal mourns dead

Residents fled their homes for fear of new mudslides on the tourist island of Madeira on Monday as Portugal decreed three days of mourning for the 42 people killed in weekend flash floods.

Last Updated: Feb 22, 2010, 22:58 PM IST

Funchal: Residents fled their homes for fear of new mudslides on the tourist island of Madeira on Monday as Portugal decreed three days of mourning for the 42 people killed in weekend flash floods.
Rescuers were braced to find more bodies in flooded carparks and mud-filled homes two days after killer mudslides ripped through the picturesque Atlantic island, gutting buildings and overturning cars.

A Portuguese warship carrying helicopters and loaded with medical and relief supplies arrived off southern Madeira on Monday, with more gendarmes and emergency workers to fly in on a military aircraft later in the day.

Buildings were still threatening to cave in across the southern region surrounding the main city of Funchal, where the violence of the storm partly destroyed a four-lane highway.

In Ribeira Brava, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Funchal, authorities ordered 30 to 40 people to evacuate their homes for fear a nearby hillside was about to collapse, the local mayor told TSF radio.

Families were also evacuated from a high-risk zone in Ponta do Sol a bit further west while a helicopter surveyed damage to the surrounding hills, local Mayor Rui Marques told the Lusa news agency.

Green groups and construction experts charge that rogue development has left Madeira vulnerable to flash floods.

The island has undergone spectacular modernisation in the past 30 years but hundreds of buildings have sprung up on flood-prone land, with roads and luxury hotels preventing engorged rivers from releasing water into the soil, they say.

"What happened in Madeira is a textbook example of the dangers of bad urban planning," said Ricardo Ribeiro, head of a Portuguese association of public safety technicians.

The Mayor of Funchal Miguel Alburquerque dismissed the charges as "ridiculous".

In Lisbon, the Portuguese cabinet decreed three days of national mourning starting on Monday.

Interior Minister Rui Pereira told a news conference Portugal would appeal for funds from the European Union and European Investment Bank to help Madeira, while the government would set up a special credit facility for stricken businesses.

Promises of help have already come from Spain and its Canary Islands, as well as from football star Cristiano Ronaldo, Madeira`s most famous native who was born in a poor district of Funchal.

Funchal`s Mayor has warned it was "very probable" the toll will rise from the current 42 dead, four missing and 120 injured.

"Our main concern is for the damaged and flooded homes, the cars buried and swept away by water, where we fear we will find new bodies," Alburquerque told the Jornal de Madeira newspaper.

Several hundred earthmovers and trucks have been requisitioned to shift tonnes of mud and rubble and rescuers were struggling Monday to pump water from underground carparks where witnesses say panicked drivers sought refuge.

Sniffer dogs picked up what appeared to be a smell of dead bodies in one shopping centre carpark in Funchal, but no victims have so far been found, police sources said.

Eighteen of the 42 victims had yet to be identified, a regional government spokewoman said, calling on people without news of their relatives to head to a temporary morgue at the airport.

A British national, named by British media as 50-year-old tourist Pamela Gaines, was among the victims.

She was travelling between hotels with her husband and another couple when their taxi was swept away by a swollen river, reports said.

Britain`s ambassador to Portugal arrived Monday to provide assistance to the 1,000 British residents and around the same number of tourists on Madeira, the embassy said.

Regional government president Alberto Joao Jardim has asked Madeira`s 250,000 residents to stay at home to avoid hindering the work with many schools to stay closed until Tuesday.

Officials said they were gradually restoring power, telephone and water supply lines, with water distribution tanks fanning out across Funchal and a military garrison opened up to house some of the 250 people left homeless.

Bureau Report