Freak thunderstorms with strong winds and torrents of rain caused havoc on the roads yesterday as flood waters swept away cars, debris and people.

In less than 24 hours Malta was hit by three violent thunderstorms as a vast area of low pressure over the central Mediterranean remained stationary.

In Marsascala, a man was electrocuted by a lightning bolt soon after the third storm struck in the afternoon.

The 39-year-old man from Marsascala was out hunting in a field with a 25-year-old friend from Żabbar when a lightning bolt struck him.

The police said the friend ran onto a nearby street to call for help and met the victim’s brother. They rushed the man to St James Hospital in Żabbar but he was already dead when they got there.

The friend suffered slight injuries and could not hear properly. According to sources he likened the impact to a bomb exploding right next to them. Residents of the area said the ground actually shook when the lightning hit and the circuit breaker of some apartment blocks tripped.

Rescuers had a busy day as the storms disrupted early morning and afternoon rush-hour traffic.

Just outside Santa Venera tunnels, a 34-year-old woman from Żejtun fell a height of one storey after she was swept away by gushing water on emerging from her stalled car.

The woman was rushed to hospital suffering from serious injuries.

A man clung on to his car’s bonnet as flood waters swelled and lifted his vehicle in front of Johnsons Store in Msida. Eyewitnesses said people tried to save him with a rope but failed and he was eventually rescued by Civil Protection Department personnel.

In the morning, in Birkirkara’s Valley Road, rescuers saved a woman who was swept away by the water as they mounted a search for a man initially reported missing but who was later found to be safe and sound.

The first violent storm struck on Sunday night and the bad weather persisted yesterday as more storms struck at 5am and 4pm.

The Meteorological Office at Malta International Airport said yesterday morning’s storm alone dropped 42.4mm of rainfall as the peak wind gust reached 48 knots.

Cars in Birkirkara and Msida were crushed by the sheer force of gushing water as they piled onto each other.

In other areas, uprooted trees and stones blocked roads as the transport network almost ground to a halt.

Many people arrived late for work and the public transport system experienced massive delays as route buses were diverted through safer roads.

The storms left a trail of damage in their wake. Farmers in Rabat saw their greenhouses smashed and water flooded houses and shops in low-lying areas. In Attard, Balzan, Gżira, Qormi, Ta’ Xbiex and Marsa­scala, roads and squares turned into rivers and lakes. On Sunday night feasts in various localities, including the popular St Catherine feast in Żurrieq, were also disrupted.

A lull in the bad weather after yesterday morning’s downpour allowed government workers and Civil Protection Department personnel to start clearing the debris.

It was shortlived though. At 4pm the thunder, rain and wind returned with a vengeance, causing another round of chaos on the streets in rush-hour traffic. Visibility was bad: people on the Valletta side of Grand Harbour were unable to see Fort St Angelo and Ricasoli on the opposite side.

For the second time in 12 hours, Valley Road, Birkirkara was the scene of raging waters. A timesofmalta.com reader sent in a picture showing flood waters reach the roof of a car lodged between two trees.

Severe flooding was reported on the Birkirkara bypass and in St Julian’s, Gżira and Balzan.

A waterspout was seen rising from the sea off Dingli cliffs and some places, including Tarxien, reported hail showers. Some readers also reported that mobile phone networks were at times jammed.

According to the Met Office, thunderstorms with heavy rainfall, although uncommon, are a typical occurrence for the end of summer and autumn period in the Mediterranean.

The thunderstorms were caused by cold air penetrating into the western Mediterranean over the last couple of days which led to the formation of “a very slow moving cold pool”.

The Met Office explained that the cold pool system started to extend southwards on Saturday creating warm and moist south westerly air streams close to the central Mediterranean. A depression developed over Libya and continued to extend northwards merging with a wide low pressure system over northern Italy.

“It was this long area of low pressure that triggered the development of thunder clouds which rapidly grew into large thunderstorms with copious rainfall and strong wind gusts,” the Met Office said.

The police were constantly warning people to avoid flood-prone areas and to drive carefully because of the debris that gathered in the streets.

Local councils in flood-prone areas were left counting the damage and the cost to clean up. In Msida, mayor Clifton Grima, accompanied by Labour local council spokes­person Stefan Buontempo, called for special funds to be made available to localities that suffered the brunt of flooding.

As they spoke in front of two cars piled on top of each other, the owner of one of them looked flabbergasted as he had only just realised the car he parked 60 metres away the night before was now sitting atop a white Skoda Favorit.

In a statement, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi thanked rescuers, the police, the army and government workers for their work to ensure serious accidents were avoided during the downpours.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com