The heaviest snowfall in five decades has blanketed Madrid over the past few days, after a giant storm hit southern and central Spain, causing at least three deaths and prompting the authorities to activate a red alert in the capital.
Madrid was brought to a standstill as Storm Filomena covered the city and surrounding areas in more than a foot and a half of snow from Friday to Saturday, the most snow the city has seen since 1971, according to the Spanish national weather agency.
The storm also battered the Canary Islands, off the coast of North Africa, and other regions in the south of Spain with strong winds and heavy rains. The town of Estepona, on the Costa del Sol, and surrounding areas saw more than 60 percent of their average annual rainfall arrive in three days, the newspaper Diario Sur reported.
Filomena “exceeded the most pessimistic forecasts we had,” José Luis Ábalos, the Spanish transport minister, said on Saturday.
The storm has claimed at least three lives: A man was frozen to death in Madrid, and two people were found in a car that was swept away by floods after a river burst its banks in southern Spain.
Blizzards halted nearly all transport over the weekend, including forcing the closure of Madrid-Barajas Airport. Rail services in the areas worst affected were suspended, and 12,500 miles of roads were closed or suffered serious disruption. The emergency services have rescued about 2,500 people from snowbound vehicles, the news agency Agence France-Presse reported.
Madrid was placed on red alert on Friday, along with the surrounding provinces of Guadalajara, Cuenca, Albacete and Toledo, the first time that the highest level of weather warning has been used in these central Spanish areas since the system was introduced in 2007.
Christopher Bjork, a Norwegian who has lived in Madrid for 20 years, said he was used to plenty of snow in his home country but had never seen his adopted city covered so completely. “This is a unique situation for Madrid,” he said. “I don’t know to what extent they are prepared for this,” he added, acknowledging the difficulties for the authorities.
There were small signs on Monday of progress in clearing the effects of the storm. Madrid-Barajas Airport was gradually resuming flights, and Spain’s national train operator, Renfe, said it hoped to offer about three quarters of its normal service, according to local reports. Soldiers have been called in to clear hundreds of roads, and more than 3,500 tons of salt is expected to arrive in Madrid to help de-ice the roads and sidewalks, local news outlets reported.
Spurred by the unusual downfall, a giant snowball fight broke out on Gran Vía, one of Madrid’s main thoroughfares, and skiers and snowboarders turned out across the city center. But under the weather warning and with the coronavirus still raging across Spain, the government has urged people to stay at home and avoid nonessential travel. The authorities have also asked residents not to use their cars to leave the roads clear for emergency vehicles.
Madrid’s subway system, the only part of its public transport network to operate without interruption since the storm struck, reported a spike of 21 percent in the number of passengers on Monday, compared with a week earlier.
Schools, colleges and universities in Madrid and in the central region of Castilla-La Mancha were closed until at least Wednesday.
There have also been warnings of further hazards this week as the snow turns to ice and a further cold snap is expected. “We have difficult days ahead,” the interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, said at a news conference on Monday.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wrote on Twitter on Monday, “We cannot lower our guard.”
“Stay alert and prepared” for the cold, he added.
The snowstorm has presented the Spanish government, still struggling with a rising coronavirus caseload, with another battlefront. Spain’s Covid-19 death toll, more than 51,000, is one of the highest in Europe.
As well as the temptation for people to mix outside, there were fears that the snow could spell disaster for the distribution of a shipment of about 300,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine to regional health authorities. But Mr. Grande-Marlaska, the interior minister, said on Monday that the vaccine had arrived safely and promised that the distribution would go ahead “without incident.”
“The commitment being shown by all health workers is an example of solidarity and dedication,” the Spanish health minister, Salvador Illa, said on Sunday.
Raphael Minder and Mark A. Walsh contributed reporting.