People look on as a street with vehicles is engulfed by heavy flooding in downtown Funchal, Madeira, on Saturday. ((Duarte Sa/Reuters))

At least 32 people have been killed by floods and mudslides caused by an unusually violent rainstorm on the Portuguese resort island of Madeira, officials said Saturday.

"We have confirmed 32 dead, but we’re still trying to figure out how many people are missing, so the final death toll can be higher still," said a duty official at the civil protection service in Madeira’s capital, Funchal.

Alberto João Jardim, the leader of the regional government on the Atlantic island tourist destination about 1,000 kilometres southwest of Lisbon, said 68 people were in hospital emergency wards.

He said the government was making temporary shelters available for hundreds of people left homeless. The downpour continued throughout the day but has become less intense, officials said.

Television footage showed powerful streams of water and mud invading the streets of Funchal, dragging and overturning cars and felling trees. Many bridges were destroyed or damaged and roads were blocked by rocks and mud, isolating parts of the island.

"I am absolutely saddened and shocked with the images, with the consequences of this calamity," Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates said.

Sócrates and Interior Minister Rui Pereira were preparing to travel to Madeira to assess the damage and co-ordinate aid. "The problem requires a response on the national level," Pereira said.

It was not immediately clear whether any tourists were among the victims.