Campania Mudslides, Italy – 1998

On the 5th May 1998, a mudslide hit Campania in Southern Italy.

The region was very hard hit by the area, and many individual towns were at high risk; Sarno and Quindici being two of the most effected. The area has the highest mudslide rate in Italy, with more than 631 since 1918. One such earthquake was in 1980, when nearly 3,000 people in Campania were killed in a single event. 65% of Italy in deemed at risk from landslides.

There were at least 17 slides during the event.

Causes

”Everything is to blame — It’s nature, it’s the authorities, and it’s also us, the citizens”–  Francesco Fligente, a local bus driver. ‘The mountain has been burned systematically” –Andrea Giordani, land surveyor. “[The mudslide was] not a natural calamity but a disaster caused by decades of ransacking the land and sprawling construction.” – WWF

The town had been hit by torrential rains beforehand, which remained ongoing during rescue attempts. The area is made of sedimentary rocks, which are predicted to eventually crumble into the nearby Tyrrheanian Sea, as the soil is very fragile and prone to erosion. This was not helped by local deforestation and a habit of burning patches of ground to achieve this, or by structural work that weakened slope integrity further. Removal of chestnut trees has an especially large effect, as these trees’ large root systems hold soil very firmly together.

The government received criticism for not declaring a state of emergency in the region on the 3rd, and not giving evacuation notice, when geologists first came to believe that slides were about to occur.

Campania is a centre for illegal housing projects, with 20% of Italy’s illegal construction, according to environmental watchdogs. Farmers regularly burned down local plantlife to make room for crops and livestock. Environmental law was regularly not enforced, or even just entirely ignored. Regional officials blamed central government for not giving enough funding to properly maintain the laws.  Meanwhile, the central government blamed the Mafia for the apathy towards environmental laws, and that they were benefiting from the poor regulations.

Geologists were regularly warning about the dangers of building while ignoring regulations in a risk prone zone.

Many homes in the area were built in very land-slide-prone sites, or too close to rivers. 24% of the area is deemed “at risk” land.

Many of the demolished buildings were poorly built out of concrete, and did not have proper foundations.

Impacts

The first news of the start of the event was the Sarno mayor calling up Civil Protection Authorities asking for help to cope with a torrent of debris approaching the city.

At least 147 people died, with about 100 of them from  just the town of Sarno. 1,000 people were left homeless. More than a dozen of the deaths were children. About 5,000 people lived in Sarno. Mud deposits were up to 13 feet deep. The Sarno hospital- Villa Marta- was entirely decimated, with 6 members of hospital staff killed. Workers carried 60 patients outside, and had they not, many more would have died; building of a new hospital outside the worst risk zone had been planned, but government budgeting to allow EU entry slowed this down- the unfinished new hospital was completely undamaged.

A whole public school was also destroyed, trapping many teachers and pupils inside. Many other buildings were also destroyed. Rivers became clogged up with mud up to 2m deep, and 1,5000 people lost all their posessions.

Whole swaths of greenery on the mountain slopes were flattened.

The  most effeceted towns were: Irpine, Salernitano, Sarno, Quindici. Episcopio, Taurano and Bracigliano, but over 230 were impacted.

The most dangerous areas were inhabited by the poorest civilians, who are the most hard hit, as they cannot pay effectively for future accomodation or relocation.

Response

Rescuers from Civil Protection arrived only a few hours after the initial plea was given, at night time. This timing hindered rescue work, as it was too dark to start any serious rescue work and helicopters to help would be unsafe to pilot. The government vastly underestimated the event’s scale, too, and initially only sent a few earth-moving vehicles, that became stuck themselves. By the 6th, volunteers had resorted to digging with their bare hands.

A funeral was held on the 11th May 1998 for the dead in a football field locally, with rescue workers contributing to the ceremony.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi pledged $30 million in relief and reconstruction on the Friday, 4 days after the event.Previous aid efforts had been largely cut down from what was pledged however, due to concerns that over spending would prevent their entry into the European Union. The government even cut funding to the Centre of Geological Studies, so that thousands of geology graduates and scientists were unemployed.

President Scalfaro said that they should focus on reconstruction and aid efforts before trying to find a guilty party. International trips by government officials were cut short in order to stand with the Italian populus and help organise repairations.

4,000 firefighters, troops, forest rangers and medical workers including 80 US marines based in Naples aided the rescues. 5 schools were converted into emergency shelters. Just one of these schools, Edmonde de Amiciis Elementary School housed 260 survivors.

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