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4 missing after Madeira flash floods killed 42

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[February 22, 2010]  FUNCHAL, Madeira Islands (AP) -- Emergency crews used bulldozers and other heavy equipment Monday to search for at least four people still missing in Madeira after flash floods and rockslides killed 42 people on the Portuguese vacation island.

Rescue teams in more than 400 vehicles worked all through the night to clear tons of caked mud, boulders and snapped trees that had piled up in the capital of Funchal and other coastal communities, authorities said.

After a month's worth of rain fell in about eight hours, a raging torrent of water and mud swept away people, houses and vehicles Saturday on the steep-sloped Atlantic Ocean island. Locals said the storm was the worst in living memory.

Only four people were officially unaccounted for on Monday, but officials said there could be further victims because blocked roads and downed phone lines made it difficult to get a complete picture of the damage.

Parts of downtown Funchal were cordoned off as crews pumped rainwater and sludge out of a shopping mall's underground parking lot where officials fear more bodies may be found. The parking lot's two levels were completely submerged.

"The recovery is going to be a hard work," resident Miguel Eduardo told Associated Press Television News. "It will take us a few months to recover."

More than 120 people were injured, and almost 120 others forced to leave their homes by the flooding were staying at a military barracks, according to the regional government.

Several main roads remained blocked by debris, but officials hoped to reopen all the island's roads by the end of the week.

The victims, in white body bags, were taken to Funchal's international airport where a makeshift morgue was set up. Among the dead was a local firefighter who was swept away in a muddy torrent as he tried to save a woman, his colleagues said.

The British Foreign office said one British national was killed and a few others had been hospitalized on Madeira. The island is popular with British tourists because of its mild climate.

Madeira is the main island of a Portuguese archipelago of the same name in the Atlantic Ocean just over 300 miles (480 kilometers) off the west coast of Africa. It has a population of around 250,000 people.

The head of the regional government, Alberto Joao Jardim, told people to stay at home if they could Monday and schools canceled classes for some 30,000 students.

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The flash floods were so powerful they carved paths down mountains and ripped through the city, churning under some bridges and tearing others down.

"A woman came running and said the water is coming and then she started to run, and then we ran with her," Danish tourist Luna Graigsson told APTN. "It was astonishing that the water came so fast."

The Portuguese government was holding a special Cabinet meeting Monday and was expected to announce three days of national mourning for the victims. It may also grant financial aid to rebuild Madeira's many destroyed roads and bridges.

The regional government says it has no estimate yet of its financial needs.

Portugal Telecom said 85 percent of the island's cellular and fixed-line capacity was restored by late Sunday.

Environmental groups alleged that building on natural water runoffs and the island's poor infrastructure management contributed to the disaster, but officials insisted it was impossible to prepare for such a freak deluge.

A Portuguese Navy frigate bringing troops to help with the cleanup was to dock in Funchal later Monday. A medical team with divers and rescue experts arrived Sunday aboard a military transport plane.

Light showers were forecast for the Atlantic Ocean island Monday and Tuesday.

[Associated Press; By ARMANDO FRANCA and BARRY HATTON]

Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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