MADRID – A prolonged blizzard covered large parts of Spain with an unusually high amount of snow on Saturday, killing at least four people and leaving thousands trapped in cars or at train stations and airports that had shut down all services.
The national meteorological agency reported that as of 7 a.m., snowfall in Madrid had reached a level not seen in half a century. According to the AEMET weather agency, more than 50 centimeters of snow fell in the Spanish capital.
The bodies of a man and a woman were recovered by the Andalusia Region Ambulance Service after their car was washed away by a flooded river near the town of Fuengirola. According to the Interior Ministry, a 54-year-old man was found dead under a large pile of snow in Madrid. A homeless man died of hypothermia in the northern city of Zaragoza, local police reported.
More than half of the Spanish provinces remained under severe weather warnings for Storm Filomena on Saturday evening, seven of them at the highest warning level. In Madrid, for the first time since the system was introduced four decades ago, authorities activated a red alert and called on the military to rescue people from vehicles stuck on small streets up to the city’s main thoroughfares.
Sandra Morena, who was trapped as a security guard in a shopping mall on her night shift late Friday, came home on foot after an army rescue unit helped her on Saturday morning.
“It usually takes me 15 minutes, but this time it was freezing 12 hours with no food or water, crying with other people because we didn’t know how to get out of there,” said Morena, 22.
“Snow can be beautiful, but spending the night trapped in a car isn’t fun,” she added.
By Saturday evening, Spanish security services had rescued everyone trapped in vehicles – over 1,500, said Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska.
AEMET had warned that some regions would receive more than 24 hours of uninterrupted snowfall due to the strange combination of a stagnant cold air mass over the Iberian Peninsula and the arrival of warmer Storm Filomena from the south.
The storm is expected to experience a sharp drop in temperature in the coming days, the agency said.
Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos warned that “snow will turn to ice and we will find ourselves in a situation that is perhaps more dangerous than the one we currently have.”
He added that the priority is to help those in need, but also to secure the supply chain for food and other basic goods.
“The storm exceeded the most pessimistic forecasts we had,” added Abalos.
Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas International Airport, the main gateway to and from Spain, will remain closed at least until Sunday, Abalos said after the snowstorm defeated machines and workers trying to keep the runways clear of snow.
All trains to and from Madrid, both suburban and long-distance trains as well as rail lines between the south and the north-east of the country, have been discontinued, said railway operator Renfe.
The storm had caused severe disruption or blocked over 650 roads, according to Spanish transport authorities, urging people to stay inside and avoid all non-essential travel.
More than 100 roads were still impassable almost 24 hours after the storm began to shed snow on the central part of the country.
The Spanish government plans to take additional steps to ensure the weekly delivery of the country’s BioNTech Pfizer coronavirus vaccine can be distributed to regional health authorities via police-escorted convoys on Monday, the interior minister said.
The wintry weather disrupted the country’s football league as some teams were unable to travel to games. The game between Spanish league leaders Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao on Saturday was postponed after the plane carrying Bilbao’s side failed to land in the capital on Friday and had to turn back.
The regions of Castilla La Mancha and Madrid with a total of 8.6 million inhabitants announced that they would close schools at least on Monday and Tuesday.
Despite the numerous branches and even entire trees being overturned by the weight of the snow, the blizzard also provided surreal imagery that entertained many Madrilenians, including a couple of brave skiers and a man on a dogsled who was featured in videos filmed in social media were widespread.
Lucia Valles, trainer at a Madrid ski club, who normally has to travel to distant mountains with her customers, was delighted when the white layers of snow literally piled up on her doorstep.
“I never imagined it, it was a gift,” said the 23-year-old. “But I’ve never had so many photos taken of myself,” she added as she slipped past the late 18th-century building that houses the Prado Museum.
AP author Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain contributed to this report.