Blizzard brings Spain to a standstill, leaves 4 people dead


A persistent blizzard blanketed large parts of Spain with an unusual amount of snow on Saturday, killing at least four people and leaving thousands trapped in cars or at train stations and airports, leading to the suspension of all services.

The national weather agency reported that as of 7 a.m. local time, the snowfall in Madrid reached a level unseen in half a century. More than 50 centimetres of snow fell in the Spanish capital, according to the weather agency AEMET.

The bodies of a man and woman were recovered by the Andalucia region emergency service after their car was washed away by a flooded river near the town of Fuengirola. The Interior Ministry said a 54-year-old man was also found dead in Madrid under a big pile of snow. A homeless man died of hypothermia in the northern city of Zaragoza, the local police department reported.

More than half of Spain’s provinces remained under severe weather alerts for storm Filomena on Saturday evening, seven of them at the highest level of warning.

In Madrid, authorities activated a red alert for the first time since the system was adopted four decades ago and called in the military to rescue people from vehicles trapped on everything from small roads to the city’s major thoroughfares.

Firefighters work to remove snow from a car in Rivas Vaciamadrid, Spain. (Manu Fernandez/The Associated Press)

Sandra Morena, who became trapped late on Friday as she commuted to her night shift as a security guard in a shopping centre, arrived home, on foot, after an army emergency unit helped her out on Saturday morning.

“It usually takes me 15 minutes, but this time it has been 12 hours freezing, without food or water, crying with other people because we didn’t know how we were going to get out of there,” said Morena, 22.

“Snow can be very beautiful, but spending the night trapped in a car because of it is no fun,” she added.

Frozen laundry hangs on a line outside an apartment window in Madrid. (Paul White/The Associated Press)

As of Saturday evening, Spanish security services had rescued all the people who were trapped in vehicles — over 1,500, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said.

AEMET had warned that some regions would be receiving more than 24 hours of continuous snowfall due to the odd combination of a cold air mass stagnant over the Iberian Peninsula and the arrival of the warmer storm Filomena from the south.

The storm is expected to be followed by a severe drop in temperatures in the coming days, the agency said.

A man, right, slips and falls while crossing the street in Madrid. (Paul White/The Associated Press)

Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos warned that “snow is going to turn into ice and we will enter a situation perhaps more dangerous than what we have at the moment.”

He added that the priority was to assist those in need but also to ensure the supply chain for food and other basic goods.

“The storm has exceeded the most pessimistic forecasts we had,” Abalos added.

People walk by the Spanish Parliament in central Madrid. (Paul White/The Associated Press)

Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas International Airport, the main gateway in and out of Spain, will remain closed at least until Sunday, Abalos said, after the blizzard bested machines and workers trying to keep the runways clear of snow.

All trains into and out of Madrid — both commuter routes and long-distance passenger trains — as well as railway lines between the south and the northeast of the country, were suspended, railway operator Renfe said.

The storm had caused serious disruptions or closed more than 650 roads, according to Spain’s transit authorities, which urged people to stay indoors and avoid all non-essential travel.

More than 100 roads were still impassable almost 24 hours after the storm began dumping snow on the central swathe of the country.

Neighbours in Bustarviejo, located outside of Madrid, gather for drinks in the middle of the street. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

The Spanish government plans to take extra steps to ensure that the country’s weekly shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine on Monday can be distributed to regional health authorities via police-escorted convoys, the interior minister said.

The wintry weather disrupted Spain’s soccer league, with some teams unable to travel for games. Saturday’s match between Spanish league leader Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was postponed after the plane carrying Bilbao’s team on Friday was unable to land in the capital and had to turn around.

The regions of Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid, home to a total of 8.6 million people, announced that schools would be closed at least on Monday and Tuesday.

People ski past La Puerta de Alcala during an unusually heavy snowfall in downtown Madrid. (Andrea Comas/The Associated Press)

Despite the numerous branches and even whole trees toppled by the weight of the snow, the blizzard also yielded surreal images that entertained many Madrileños, including a few brave skiers and a man on a dog sled that was seen on videos widely circulated on social media.

Lucia Valles, a coach for a Madrid-based ski club who usually has to travel to faraway mountains with her clients, was thrilled to see the white layers of snow accumulating literally at her doorstep.

“I never imagined this, it has been a gift,” the 23-year-old said. “But I’ve never had so many photographs taken of me,” she added as she slid past the late 18th-century building that hosts the Prado Museum.

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