22 February, 2010


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Breakneck development blamed for Madeira flood toll

Three decades of breakneck development and rogue urban planning are to blame for the heavy toll from weekend flash floods on Portugal's tourist island of Madeira, environmentalists said Monday. Skip related content

Portugal was in mourning after torrents of muddy water swamped the mountainous Atlantic island on Saturday, killing 42 people and injuring scores more as the flooding demolished houses and overturned cars.

But for green groups and construction experts, Madeira was left vulnerable to a flood disaster by careless development.
"What happened in Madeira is a textbook example of the dangers of bad urban planning," agreed Ricardo Ribeiro, head of a Portuguese association of public safety technicians.
The Portuguese island, which lies 500 kilometres (300 miles) off the Moroccan coast, has undergone a spectacular modernisation in the past 30 years, largely thanks to European Union funds to channelled to poor, outlying regions.
Tourists from northern Europe flock each year to its capital Funchal, now a small city of 100,000 people boasting waterfront luxury hotels and holiday resorts and state-of-the-art infrastructure.
To cater for the tourism boom, a four-lane highway now runs a ring around the island of 57 by 22 kilometres, while critics says dozens of road tunnels have turned Madeira into a concrete "Swiss cheese."
Green groups have long accused the island's president since 1978, Alberto Joao Jardim, of promoting sprawl with little regard for environmental safety.
For Helder Spinola of the Quercus green group, "heavy rains are not the only explanation for the disaster."
"Planning mistakes made the situation worse," he charged.
Hundreds of buildings have sprung up on land prone to flooding, he says, while the concreting-over of much of Madeira's coast now prevents water from seeping into the soil, making the flood risk worse.
Building roads, high-rise hotels and infrastructure near Madeira's waterways has "waterproofed the soil with concrete and tarmac," he says, a problem particularly acute in the south where most of its 250,000 inhabitants live.
None of the three main rivers that cross Madeira are able to run freely into the surrounding soil, he says.
On Saturday, "these waterways became water cannons sweeping away bridges and buildings," said Portuguese far-left politician Francisco Louca.
Joao Carlos Silva, an opposition Socialist lawmaker in the Madeira regional assembly, also took aim at the "chaotic urbanisation" in and around Funchal, claiming to have repeatedly warned the authorities of the flood risk.
Maderia's regional authorities declined to comment on the accusations, dismissed as "ridiculous" by Funchal's mayor Miguel Albuquerque who said the disaster was caused by "an exceptional weather phenomenon."


Funchal, Portugal, the most populated city in Madeira, the largest island in the Portuguese archipelago, where scenes for such films as LA COMTESSE NOIRE and AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO (1973) and other Jess Franco titles were shot, was devastated over the weekend by flash flooding and mudslides. Many residents and tourists were swept away into the sea. At least 42 are dead, and many more missing, including a UK national. The islands are especially popular with UK tourists.

When reading this I thought back to the magical quality that once underdeveloped island gave to those films. But as this report shows time has brought manmade change and a climatic disaster.

The actor Robert Woods told me that when he arrived on the island for location shooting on several Jess Franco features in 1973 he was charmed by its relatively unspoiled, breathtaking beauty. Images of the misty mountaintop gates to another world referenced by the melancholy writer played by Jack Taylor in LA COMTESSE NOIRE, the site of the fabled Atlantis, also came back.

I've always wanted to go to Madeira on a sort of nostalgic LA COMTESSE NOIRE retreat. I was saddened by this sobering news of real death and destruction in a place I had thought of as somehow frozen in time and protected from the onslaughts of the world we actually live in. [RM]

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