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February 21, 2010 by Mannie Berk
I write this at 2am Sunday morning on the American east coast, a few hours after receiving an email from Ricardo Freitas of Vinhos Barbeito. He informed me that heavy rains early Saturday had turned into torrential floods, rushing down Madeira’s mountainsides and leaving devastation in their wake. As of this morning, 32 people are reported dead and scores injured.
“A very strong storm started at 3:00am in Madeira. The biggest the island ever faced in its history. I have never seen nothing like this all my life. All the water from the rivers come out and pushed everything to the sea. 32 people have died until now.”
Though the intensity of the storm seems to have been unexpected, violent weather has been ongoing in recent days. Earlier this week, he told me by phone that the island was being buffeted by 60mph winds.
The downtown area of Funchal, the capital city, has been particularly hard hit, with torrents of water rushing through the streets, and exploding through buildings, seeking a path to the sea. A number of graphic videos of the storm’s effect have appeared on the internet:
While Madeira is often described as an island paradise, floods are sadly not at all unknown. The most notable occurred in October of 1803, when more than 500 people were described as being “swept out to sea” by floods that also destroyed most of the year’s wine crop and ripped houses from their foundations. Ricardo wrote that, because of the high waters and downed trees, mud and debris, traveling is impossible and that he and others have been left helpless to watch what is happening on television. As a result, it is likely to be some time before the true extent of the loss of life and property is understood. Our thoughts and prayers are with our good friends on this wonderful island.
Since Sunday, we’ve spoken to three past or present wine producers, and are learning more about the extent of the damage and what caused it.
As we mentioned in the previous post, the weekend’s heavy rain was a continuation of unsettled weather. In fact, according to one producer, it has rained daily throughout the winter, so that the ground was saturated with water. Saturday morning’s rains fell heaviest along the south coast and in the mountains, and there was nowhere for it to go but down the rivers, three of which travel through Funchal. It was here (and in the town of Ribeira Brava) that the physical damage was most concentrated.
The rain began early Saturday morning and by that afternoon, the rivers in Funchal had exceeded their capacity and the water and debris began to overspread the surrounding streets and push through buildings. Cellars quickly filled with water, and there is great concern about potential loss of life in underground parking garages. There may also be a substantial amount of old wine stored both at ground level, and particularly in cellars, that was lost.
As of today, Monday, the official death toll is 42, but it’s sure to rise. Recovery efforts are being hampered by the vast amount of debris in some streets. Streets a quarter mile from the sea have been described to us as looking like a beach, thickly covered with sand and stones. And in the streets along Funchal’s rivers, large rocks have been deposited four to five feet deep.
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