Cars were washed away by the flood in the historic centre of Campo Maior, Portalegre (December 13, 2022)
Cars were washed away by the flood in the historic centre of Campo Maior, Portalegre (December 13, 2022) Photo: NUNO VEIGA/LUSA

Agony as floodwaters wipe out festive cheer

Untold damages as heavy rains flood Lisbon and parts of Alentejo

Scores rendered homeless, shops destroyed, restaurants in despair, businesses knee-deep in mud, landslides, roof and building collapses – even roads giving way. This has been the hideous balance of a few days of unusually heavy rain in Portugal.

Areas in Greater Lisbon and beyond that have perennially faced flooding are feeling the full force of Nature this week, with very little to look forward to. In some hugely tragic situations, people lost their lives.

Last week’s floods saw an elderly woman with very reduced mobility die in a basement in Algés. Firefighters called to the rescue managed to save her husband, who was reportedly clutching the corner of a mattress, with his head just inches from the ceiling… but there simply wasn’t the time to rescue both.

In Odivelas, an ‘accident blackspot’ claimed the life of a taxi driver whose vehicle came off the road and careered into the river.

But in the majority of incidents – and there were many thousands – heavy rains simply caused utter devastation: flooded streets and alleyways, devastated businesses, truncated hopes and dreams.

The worst is that areas like Loures, Odivelas, Cascais, Algés, received a double dose of agony. The first floods hit over the night of Wednesday to Thursday last week; the second (just as in many cases people were in the final stages of mopping up) overnight from Monday to Tuesday.

Algés/Greater Lisbon Area: the unusually heavy rain has caused flooding, evacuations, road closures and property damage (December 13, 2022)
Algés/Greater Lisbon Area: the unusually heavy rain has caused flooding, evacuations, road closures and property damage (December 13, 2022)
Photo: TIAGO PETINGA/LUSA

Retailers and restaurateurs who had been hoping to make some money over the festive season have been plunged into despair. Scores of people have been rendered homeless (most of the situations being temporary, but nonetheless traumatic for those concerned) – and the forecast is that heavy rains could well continue through to Christmas.

Climatologist Mário Marques believes this winter “could be very different from other years” (at least the most recent years, in which the country has been assailed by drought). And in the short- and medium-term, there really is “nothing we can do” to avoid further flooding and damages, he says.

The truth is that structural solutions to what is a regular occurrence in winter-time (some years with worse consequences than others) have been serially delayed (see below). For example, very little is recounted these days of the floods of 1967, in which hundreds of people are believed to have died in the areas of Odivelas, Loures and Vila Franca de Xira (the full death count was never revealed by the regime that remained in place until the revolution of 1974).

Looking forwards, the government has made it clear it is fully aware of the hardship the last few days have brought. Ministers are meeting with all the local authorities affected, the promise being that “all national and international instruments that exist for these kinds of situations” will be called upon.

Damages suffered; repair works that will be needed – the final tally will be in millions of euros. Whether or not victims will feel they have been suitably indemnified is what no-one yet can tell.

Blame lies with consequences of Efrain: “a giant, very cavernous depression”

The cause of this latest hardship is associated with Efrain – a giant and very cavernous depression which weather channels were warning about last Friday. Indeed, Efrain appears to have been part of “a train of depressions” coming from the Atlantic, whose origin is due to “a peculiar distribution of the polar jet stream and cold air masses from the Northern Hemisphere”.

‘Convective cells’ provoked by Efrain and loaded with water vapour were what brought the 121 litres of water per square metre that fell in areas like Greater Lisbon and North Alentejo on Monday through to Tuesday morning.

With that kind of intensity, every single infrastructure built on compromised ground was at risk. Even hospitals suffered – particularly São Francisco Xavier which had only just recovered from plasterboard ceilings giving way under intense rain last week. This week saw the two basement floors flooded, lifts out of order and bedridden patients needing exams on other floors incapable of being transported there.

This awful period will have deep, financial consequences – for everyday people in countless areas, and for the State. But one thing that is assured is that infrastructure planned decades ago will finally be actioned.

Road collapse in Monforte, Portalegre (December 13, 2022)
Road collapse in Monforte, Portalegre (December 13, 2022)
Photo: NUNO VEIGA/LUSA

Ironically, Lisbon City Council had only given the green light for work to begin on two large drainage tunnels hours before the Wednesday night downpours.

Mayor Carlos Moedas admitted last Thursday that if the tunnels had already existed, “what happened yesterday, would not have happened”.

“Lisbon Drainage Plan” ignored by five mayors, including current PM, over two decades

The Lisbon Drainage Plan has been in existence for two decades. It has seen five mayors, including António Costa, basically ignore it – the reason, admit commentators like Luís Marques Mendes (also a State councillor) is that it is “invisible. It doesn’t win votes”.

Now, finally, after so much heartache and pain, work on the plan is to move forwards. Carlos Moedas has warned it will cause constraints (“Avenida da Liberdade will become a building site”; residents will need to have patience and understanding…); it will cost roughly €250 million, and if all goes according to plan, it should be fully in place by 2025.

Construction cannot start before March because the tunnelling machinery, ‘H20Lisboa’ (made in China) “still has to be assembled”.

H20Lisboa was especially conceived for this project. It is 130 metres long, and designed to ‘advance roughly 10 metres per day’, according to the site explaining works to go ahead https://planodrenagem.lisboa.pt

Briefly, the plan involves two underground tunnels, each with a diameter of 5-metres, at two salient high points of the city (Monsanto and Chelas), leading down to the sea at Santa Apolónia and Beato respectively.

It won’t be the answer to every drama caused by heavy rain (it won’t stop the consequences of bad building, or poor road maintenance), but it will ‘save the capital’, and go a long way to dragging major infrastructure into the 21st century.

As ‘people’s newspaper’ Correio da Manhã has stressed (on numerous occasions, through these floods and before), “Portugal likes to compare itself to the global elites. Talking about climate change and stuff like that”, but “it only needs to rain heavily for a couple of hours (as often happens in autumn and winter) to reveal the abject misery” in which far too many people still live.

On Wednesday, as the consequences of flood damage still filled the nation’s media, CM was relentless: “The capital spends millions on the Web Summit, but when it rains it does not look like any other European capital; it looks more like a Latin-American favela (slum). Urban planning in Lisbon has not respected water lines or permeability of soils (…) Images of the floods are the result of decades of neglect and negligence by policy makers”.

It is no coincidence that flooding has not devastated regions in the north. Northern residents will tell you “our councils enacted flood plans years ago”.

By Natasha Donn
natasha.donn@portugalresident.com