A group of Northern Ireland travel agents have described the terror of being caught up in devastating floods on the holiday island of Madeira.
At least 40 people are feared dead, more than 120 have been injured and others are missing after torrents of muddy water coursed through the streets of the capital Funchal and other towns at the weekend.
A Belfast group was on the island when the freak weather hit and describe watching cars being swept away in front of their eyes.
Natasha Warcholak (35), a travel journalist from Belfast, and 10 travel agents from Northern Ireland were in Madeira on an educational trip with Cadogan Holidays when the heavy rainstorms hit the island.
The group managed to get one of the last flights off the island yesterday before the airport was forced to close. They arrived back into Dublin last night.
Natasha said: “Madeira is a very small island so there was really no way to escape what was happening. It is a volcanic island, not flat at all, so this led to the mudslides.
“When we woke up on Saturday morning the rain was lashing down. From our hotel we could see the high waves and the swell at the harbour.
“We saw people running and cars being swept away.
“We were so lucky to get off the island as they closed the airport just after our departure.
“We were very worried and almost sure that we would not be able to get our flight home because of the weather.
“We were very well looked after and always kept informed about what was happening but there could be other people from Northern Ireland on holiday on the island and stuck there.
“The people we were with in Madeira said they had never seen anything like this happening in their lifetime.
“Their winter would normally be like an Irish summer with sunshine and occasional drizzle so the heavy rain was totally out of the blue.”
Pam Bryans, from Cadogan Holidays, said: “We were able to get out and about in the days before the storm hit although the weather was a bit changeable. We had beautiful weather on Friday.
“We were staying in a lovely hotel in Funchal at the seafront so when the bad weather started we could see the waves splashing up into the pool. We then heard there had been a mudslide in the middle of Funchal and were advised to stay indoors as a precautionary measure.
“We felt safe there but it was very strange to watch what was happening on TV knowing that it was taking place just 15 minutes down the road from us.”
The Portuguese military sent in specialist rescue teams after floods swept away cars and tore down houses as the storm hit early on Saturday morning. Roads were blocked by fallen trees and bridges also collapsed.
Some phone lines have been disabled forcing the emergency services to appeal over local radio stations for off-duty doctors and nurses to report for work.
Island authorities said the storm, the worst to hit Madeira for 17 years, has displaced 250 people.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We are monitoring the developing situation closely. We are providing consular assistance to a small number of British Nationals who have been hospitalised.”