Madrid (AFP) – A continuous snowstorm blanketed large parts of Spain with an extraordinary amount of snow on Saturday, killing at least four people and leaving thousands trapped in cars or in train stations and airports that shut down all services.
The National Weather Service reports that as of 7 am, snowfall in Madrid has reached a level unseen for half a century. More than 50 centimeters (20 inches) of snow fell in the Spanish capital, according to the meteorological agency AEMET.
The bodies of a man and a woman were recovered by the Andalusia emergency service, after their car washed away in a flooded river near the town of Fuengirola. The Interior Ministry said a 54-year-old man was found dead in Madrid under a large pile of snow. The local police department reported that a homeless person died of hypothermia in the northern city of Zaragoza.
More than half of Spain’s provinces remained under severe warnings due to Storm Felomena on Saturday night, seven of them at the highest warning level. In Madrid, authorities activated Red Alert for the first time since the system was adopted four decades ago, calling on the military to rescue people from vehicles trapped on everything from small roads to major city roads.
Sandra Morena, who was trapped late Friday night as she was traveling to her night shift as a security guard at a shopping mall, arrived at her home on foot after an army emergency unit helped her out on Saturday morning.
“It usually takes 15 minutes, but this time it was 12 hours of freezing, without food or water,” said 22-year-old Morena. “I cried with other people because we didn’t know how we would get out of there.”
She added, “Snow can be very beautiful, but spending the night trapped in a car because of it is not fun.”
As of Saturday evening, Spain’s security services had rescued all the people trapped in the cars – more than 1,500, Interior Minister Fernando Grande Marlaska said.
AEMET warned that some areas will receive more than 24 hours of continuous snowfall due to the strange combination of the cold air mass stagnant over the Iberian Peninsula and the arrival of warm storm Philomena from the south.
The agency said the storm was expected to be followed by a sharp drop in temperatures in the coming days.
Transport Minister Jose Luis Opalos warned that “snow will turn into ice and we will enter a situation that may be more dangerous than what we have at the moment.”
He added that the priority is to help those in need but also to ensure the supply chain for food and other basic commodities.
“The storm has exceeded our most pessimistic expectations,” added Opalus.
Obalos said Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas International Airport, the main gateway in and out of Spain, would remain closed at least until Sunday, after the snowstorm outpaced machinery and workers trying to keep the runways clear of snow.
Rail operator Renfe said all trains to and from Madrid, both commuter lines and long-distance trains, as well as railways between the south and northeast of the country, have been suspended.
The storm caused serious disruptions or closed more than 650 routes, according to Spanish transit authorities, who urged people to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel.
Almost 24 hours after the storm began to throw snow over the central region of the country, more than 100 roads were still passable.
The interior minister said the Spanish government plans to take additional steps to ensure that the country’s weekly shipment of the BioNTech-Pfizer coronavirus vaccine can be distributed on Monday to regional health authorities via convoys escorted by police.
Winter weather disrupted the country’s soccer league, as some teams were unable to travel to participate in the matches. Saturday’s match between La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was postponed after the plane carrying Bilbao on Friday failed to land in the capital and had to turn.
The Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid regions, home to 8.6 million people in all, announced the closure of schools on at least Monday and Tuesday.
Despite the numerous branches and even whole trees toppled by the weight of the snow, the snowstorm also yielded surreal images that many skaters enjoyed, including a few brave skiers and a man on a dog sled seen in videos that were widely circulated on media Social Media
Lucia Valles, a coach of a ski club in Madrid who usually has to travel to distant mountains with her clients, was thrilled to see layers of snow-white piling up literally on her doorstep.
“I never imagined this, it was a gift,” said the 23-year-old. “But I didn’t take so many pictures of me,” she said, going past the late 18th century building that houses the Prado Museum.
Author Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain contributed to this report.