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A Look Back at Madeira’s Natural Disaster

Ten years ago, Madeira experienced one of the worst moments in its history. Following several days of rain a torrential downpour caused severe flooding which to this day remains a vivid memory for all those who experienced it and which left a trail of destruction, forty-seven deaths plus four missing, two hundred and fifty injured and displacing six hundred people. Funchal, Ribeira Brava, Câmara de Lobos and Santa Cruz were the main areas affected causing in excess of €1,080 million in damage to property and infrastructure.

During February 2010, Madeira had already experienced several days of rain, but on the morning of xxxxxxx 185 litres of rain per square metre fell on Pico de Areeiro, one of the islands highest points. Meanwhile, Funchal, which usually experiences an average rainfall of 750 litres per square metre per year was hit as 114 litres of rain per square metre fell in just five hours. Rivers, Levadas, drains and road gutters could not cope with such a volume of water and were quickly over whelmed. A torrent of water, with mud and other debris, cascaded down throughout the island blocking roads, barriers and bridges which quickly became blocked.

Due to the swirling and ever-increasing movement of floodwater and debris houses were battered and many destroyed or made uninhabitable. Cars and their occupants were swept aside, and more than one family suffered the tragedy of losing someone as the floodwaters showed no mercy and loved ones were swept away in front of them.  One survivor suffered panic attacks while recovering in the hospital every time she heard water flowing.

Funchal became unrecognisable as shops, shopping centres, car parks, banks, restaurants, the Sugar Museum, the archives of the Funchal Court of Auditors and the Municipal Theatre of Funchal were inundated with mud and water. Rescue operations were hampered by the volume of debris and smashed vehicles and and rescue boats patrolled the city’s streets searching for and rescuing those caught or cut off by the floodwaters.

The municipality of Ribeira Brava, especially Serra D’Água, was also severely affected with more than a hundred houses damaged, many of which had their foundations washed away, and their structures strewn across the banks of the river like rubbish.  In one area the military had to use a metal bridge to rescue those who were stranded and isolated on one of the riverbanks.

It was almost as if Madeira had been torn apart.  Between tears, fear and disbelief came the inhabitant’s true grit and determination, as within 24 hours, the Madeirans had started their clean-up operation.  Everyone helped, whether it was children, adults or pensioners the spirit of togetherness brought a stunned island together.

The following day, more than 140 trucks and 270 other assorted machines started work to clear up the rubble left strewn across the streets and roads.  Everyone took part including the military, firefighters, Regional Government officials, city councils, and volunteers.

Plans for the reconstruction of the affected areas began and the then president of the Regional Government, Alberto João Jardim, asked for help from Brussels.  Refusing to declare a ‘calamitous situation’ in order not to further harm the island’s tourist industry and, later, after the summer fires, he declared 2010 as Madeira’s “annus horribilis.”

The relocation of the hundreds of displaced people was a significant task and those displaced were initially housed at the Guarnição Regiment no. 3, a military complex in Funchal. Everyone tried to do what they could and three days of national mourning were decreed.

However, there is still much to be done,  and even now, ten years on and there are still six families whose lives have not been restored.  Five families declined the alternative accommodation the government offered while a sixth is waiting for their house to be re-built.

For many, today is a harsh reminder of how they lost everything from personal mementoes to loved ones. But it also showed the world the tenaciousness of the island and its people, who despite loss and tragedy came together as one to re-build their home once again.

Today, Praça do Povo, which is built on the old deposit site of the debris is a memorial dedicated to all those who lost their lives on that fateful day.

Samantha Gannon

info at madeira-weekly.com

Photo: Diario da Noticias Archives

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