St Albans couple escape Madeira floods

PUBLISHED: 08:21 25 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:56 06 May 2010

Jonathan and Liz Hinkins

Jonathan and Liz Hinkins

Casey Gutteridge

A COUPLE are thankful to be alive after a narrow escape from the devastating flash floods which struck Madeira at the weekend. Jonathan Hinkins, known as Noj, and his wife Liz, have spoken of their horrific ordeal on the stricken Portuguese island on Satu

A COUPLE are thankful to be alive after a narrow escape from the devastating flash floods which struck Madeira at the weekend.

Jonathan Hinkins, known as Noj, and his wife Liz, have spoken of their horrific ordeal on the stricken Portuguese island on Saturday when torrents swept through the regional capital of Funchal, killing scores of people.

The couple, who live in Prae Close, St Albans, jetted off to Madeira hoping for a week of winter sun. Instead, they were met with torrential downpours and high winds, although they still managed to enjoy a relaxing break leaving their children Sam, six and Ellie, three, in the care of their grandparents.

But the holiday quickly became a nightmare when the weather took a further turn for the worse on Saturday morning as they prepared to return home.

The couple, who run a leadership consultancy business, left the hotel slightly earlier than planned due to the adverse conditions - a decision which might have saved their lives as they avoided a landslide on the road by minutes.

As Noj, 38, drove their hire car to the drop-off point ahead of their return flight, he was forced to negotiate roads that had turned to rivers and weave his way past branches, rocks and landslides.

He said the steep and muddy banks were already waterlogged from the week's weather and new cascades appeared by the minute.

Although terrified, the couple were oblivious to how serious the disaster unfolding in front of them was - it had already killed more than 20 people.

Noj, who has ironically written a new life coaching book which delves into the power of nature (One: Changing the World from the Inside Out), said: "When you are involved in a natural disaster communication collapses. With no internet, no phone lines and no mobile signal, you sense something is seriously wrong, but you are not aware of the extent.

"Unlike disaster movies there is no dramatic music to give you a clue as to how bad things are getting. There is no cut to the flash flood approaching down the valley. Things unfold around you, but you are largely oblivious. You tend to piece things together afterwards as you speak with others."

The couple's ordeal continued after dropping off their hire car and during a lift to the airport. The road ahead was impassable so their driver took the motorway heading away from the airport thinking she could turn around at a later point and avoid the blockage.

But every exit was blocked with debris and floods, and they become stranded.

Noj continued: "We stopped on a bridge. It was hard to see through the wall of rain but a car a dozen or so in front had been stopped by the flood. Behind the concrete bollards we could see the waters rising, gradually submerging parked cars. We sat, powerless for over an hour."

They eventually made it to the airport after driving the wrong way along the motorway, only to find that their flight had been cancelled.

But when they saw a couple who had stayed at the same hotel as them, Noj and Liz, 37, realised just how lucky they were to be alive.

Noj said: "When they finally found us at the airport they were overcome with relief that we had made it. The man had tears in his eyes as he expressed how pleased he was. They had seen us leave and had left just ten minutes after us. They rounded a corner to find a landslide completely blocking the road and had to turn back to find another way. When they couldn't find us at their airport, they feared the worse."

He continued: "Then you feel the gradual clunk of clarity. Ten minutes. That's all. The questions start to run through your mind. When did that landslide happen? What if we had not been in such a hurry to leave? What if there had been a queue at reception when we handed the key in? What if we had left five minutes later?"

After a night in a nearby hotel, the couple finally boarded a plane home and touched down at Gatwick Airport on Sunday evening.

Rescue teams continue to search the mud-filled streets of Madeira and the current death toll stands at 42.

Noj added: "I'm a big believer in life's dice. This day bought that into stark reality because we didn't realise the importance of the decisions we were making.

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