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42 die in Madeira mudslides

Rescue workers dug through heaps of mud, boulders and debris in Madeira today, searching for victims buried by flash floods and mudslides that already claimed the lives of at least 42 people on the Portuguese island.

More than 120 others were injured and an unknown number were missing, possibly swept away or smothered, authorities said, adding that the death could still rise. Another 250 people were forced to flee their homes and go to shelters.

The worst storm to hit the Atlantic Ocean island since 1993 lashed the capital of Funchal yesterday, turning some streets into raging torrents of liquid brown mud, water and debris.

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 that had been swept downstream littered the streets.

“It was horrible, there were cars on rooftops, there were vans and trucks that had fallen and been totally crushed,” said German tourist Andreas Hoisser.

The water swept even a heavy fire truck downstream, slamming it into a tree.

The weather improved this morning, making it easier for rescue workers to move around. Still, some roads and bridges were washed away and others were littered with uprooted trees, cars and boulders, hampering search and rescue efforts.

But more rain hit later, raising fears of new mudslides on the mountainous island.

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.

Army units based on the island mobilised rescue teams, debris removal crews, bridge specialists and two helicopters to help with the disaster.

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