32 dead as rainstorms hit Portuguese island

LISBON: Violent rainstorms have killed at least 32 people on the Portuguese Atlantic island of Madeira, a senior official said, as Lisbon rushed relief supplies to the stricken territory.

"We already have 32 fatalities and 68 injured, all of them in hospital," Joao Cunha e Silva, the vice president of the island's government, told the private Sic Noticias television channel Saturday.

Television pictures showed torrents of muddy water bursting out of narrow channels, flooding roads and leaving debris in its wake, as locals struggled to keep their feet in the sudden flash floods.

The Portuguese naval frigate Corte-Real set off from Lisbon for Madeira late Saturday with helicopters, a medical team and relief supplies, the armed forces said in a statement.

Also en route were two helicopters and two C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. A rescue team of 56 gendarmes and 36 firefighters was to depart Lisbon for the island's capital Funchal early Sunday.

"We are studying the possibility of declaring a state of emergency and then seeking help from the European Union," Interior Minister Rui Pereira said.

The island's airport was closed and Funchal mayor Miguel Albuquerque advised residents to stay home.

The strong winds and heavy rain overnight caused flooding and landslides, particularly in the south of Madeira, a resort island located 900 kilometres (560 miles) southwest of the Portuguese mainland.

Winds exceeding 100 kilometres an hour, high seas and blocked roads had made things more difficult for emergency services, though weather forecasters said the worst was over for the island, some 500 kilometres from the African coast.

Electricity and telephone networks were severed in many areas.

In Funchal, an elderly woman died when the roof of her house caved in and two others were crushed by a crane, local media reported. Several residents were evacuated from their homes.

"I am very worried because I only know what I see from my window," Funchal resident Margarida Freitas Vieira told the Lusa news agency.

"The sea is all brown, there are enormous waves."

By late Saturday, the town had no electricity and phone lines were also down.

Officials evacuated the lower part of the town, which has a population of 100,000, as the floodwaters hampered the work of the emergency services.

"It had been raining since dawn and our hotel was evacuated as it is near a river in the city centre," said Aymeric Payan, a French hotel employee in Funchal.

Portuguese news media said the storms were the deadliest in Madeira since October 1993, when eight people died.

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, expressing shock, promised support for the islanders.