More than 120 others were injured and an unknown number of others were missing, possibly swept away or smothered, authorities said, adding that they expected the death toll to rise.
Heavy rain lashed the island on Saturday, turning some streets in the capital of Funchal into raging rivers of mud, water and debris. The storm – the worst to hit the island since 1993 – also displaced 250 people.
Cars that had been swept downhill by muddy waters had landed, crumpled, on the rooftops of houses downstream. Rescue teams who had dug out one car from chocolate brown slime were seen working inside it, possibly to recover more bodies.
The death toll “will likely increase, given the circumstances of this flood”, regional social services spokesman Francisco Ramos said, adding that there were “great difficulties” in communications.
The flash floods were so powerful they carved their own paths down mountains and through the city, churning under bridges and even tearing some down. Residents had to cling to railings to make sure they weren’t swept away. Cars were consumed by the force of the water, and the battered shells of overturned vehicles littered the streets.
Rescue workers wearing helmets helped people cross at some places where the flow of the water wasn’t so strong.
The water swept even a heavy fire truck downstream, slamming into a tree, while rescuers on inflatable rafts navigated through streets looking for trapped residents.
The weather improved yesterday, making it easier for rescue workers to move around. Still, some roads and bridges were washed away while others were littered with uprooted trees, cars and boulders, all hampering search and rescue efforts.
Prime Minister Jose Socrates said he was “profoundly shocked” by the severity of the floods and promised the government would help Madeira recover as quickly as possible.
A medical team backed up by divers and rescue experts was being sent yesterday aboard a C-130 transport plane to the archipelago, 900 kilometers southwest of Lisbon. The island’s most famous son, Real Madrid football star Cristiano Ronaldo, was horrified by the floods.
“Nobody can remain indifferent to the disaster,” he told journalists in Madrid.
“I want to express my willingness, as far as I can, to help agencies and authorities to overcome the effects of this devastation.”