It is now nearly 80 years ago that the most devastating windstorm recorded in Portugal hit the Iberian Peninsula. On February 15-16, 1941, strong winds, usually referred to as a cyclone, created tidal surges responsible for shipwrecks, flooding of coastal villages and major coastal morphological modifications.
There were many human casualties and damage to property was severe throughout Portugal and along the north coast of Spain, particularly in the Basque country.
The weather had been bad for some days before the actual cyclone, and the ground was already saturated. In the cyclone itself, strong winds and torrential rain ripped off roofs, blew in windows and skylights and uprooted trees all over Portugal. Telephone and telegraph communications broke down as lines were breached.
The peak of the cyclone coincided with a high tide, causing major flooding in Lisbon. At Terreiro do Paço, waves reached the eastern side of the square over 125m from the river bank. In the port area, workshops and warehouses were destroyed and, at Cais do Sodré, dozens of boats were smashed against each other.
O Século reported that waves reached a height of 20m and several ships sank in the river. There was a huge amount of damage along the whole of the Tagus waterfront as far as Cascais, and it was reported that 78 people had died and dozens more were injured in Lisbon alone.
Atmospheric pressure dropped to 950 hPa, and Lisbon’s Central Meteorological Observatory recorded a wind speed of 127kph. It is reported that at Serra do Pilar in Porto, the anemometer recorded windspeeds of 167kph before it was blown off.
In the central and eastern Algarve, the Ria Formosa barrier islands are constantly migrating from west to east at rates sometimes exceeding 100m a year. They became inhabited by fisherfolk only after the suppression of the Barbary corsairs in the mid-19th century, when fishermen’s families began to feel safe from the threat of piracy.
On February 15, all houses on Praia de Faro and in Culatra village were destroyed, and their contents disappeared; the tuna arraial on Cabo de Santa Maria also disappeared. East of Tavira, a new opening (Barra do Cochicho) appeared in the sand barrier, completely destroying the island in front of Cabanas. Three tuna arraiais near Tavira disappeared, but there were no human casualties.
At the same time, Tavira’s artificial bar (opened in 1927) was closed by drifting sand. Work on this opening to the sea continued sporadically, a major dredging operation taking place as late as 1977.
In Tavira, trees weakened by sodden ground were ripped out. Tiles flew everywhere, and the 50 poor houses at Bairro José Joaquim Jara were completely stripped of their tiles. Tavira Câmara begged for help from the government, whose sole response was to prohibit the dances of Carnaval.
The damage caused by the 1941 windstorm was the greatest natural disaster in Iberia since the Great Earthquake of 1755, but that storm is not unique since storms of nearly similar intensity have occurred at other times. For example, in the late winter of 1978, house foundations were compromised at Praia de Faro as waves swept over the island on their way to the lagoon.
The urban strip of Praia de Faro, limited to a band of sand of no more than 100m width between ocean and lagoon, is at high risk as the most vulnerable area in Ria Formosa.
What would result if a storm similar to that of 1941 happened today? Development of property along the coast of Portugal has intensified since the advent of international tourism. Progressive urbanisation and increasing pressure caused by human behaviour has weakened the structure of the dune barrier, while new marinas, groynes and jetties impact on the behaviour of the sea and the movement of sediment. Disaster odds increase annually, as mean sea levels rise, and the chance remains of spring tides occurring at the same time as a major storm.
It is probable that today’s weather warning systems are cushioning many people in a false sense of security. The collective memory and the culture of the fishing community linked to the sea has lapsed, in particular since there are so many foreign newcomers. The traditional knowledge of areas which do not flood and of the maximum level of storm penetration is gradually being lost.
More built assets are now exposed, and coastal engineering works undertaken for other reasons often change or weaken the natural coastal defences. In any future storm, sophisticated warning techniques will probably save human lives, but the economic consequences will be far more severe.
As they say in the Azores, “where the sea and the river arrived once, again it will reach”. Humans have a facility in forgetting unpleasant facts, and as soon as the worst is over, we look forward and rely on technology for protection.
The inhabitants of Praia de Faro may believe that the technical expertise of the authorities will protect them, but it will probably not be enough in another storm like that of 1941. For self-preservation, they and all other inhabitants of the barrier islands and coastal areas should now be investigating the risk memories of their older neighbours.
By Lynne Booker