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Storms raise havoc, Rome in turmoil

Romans on rooftops, Venice submerged, Pisan town evacuated

31 January, 18:48
Storms raise havoc, Rome in turmoil (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Rome, January 31 - Romans took to the rooftops, Venice was plunged under its deepest water this year, and a town near Pisa was evacuated as rainstorms wreaked havoc and snow forced the closure of schools across Italy Friday.

A mudslide engulfed makeshift homes in the capital where six Roma were rescued.

The worst disruption in Rome came in the north of the city where at least one subway stop was closed for flooding and traffic was snarled by rising water and fallen tree limbs.

Some residents decided to take to the rooftops after seeing flood waters rise as high as three metres in a northern suburb.

Firemen in dinghies rescued the stranded people, including families with young children, in the Prima Porta district, an area about 12 km from the city centre where two tributaries join the Tiber.

Shops and basements were also flooded after the rivers broke their banks.

Some 3,000 calls for aid were made in Rome to the national 118 emergency helpline within the space of a few hours. Emergency workers sent out teams to some 400 different locations to help desperate city residents, though many ambulances and aid workers themselves encountered difficulty in carrying out their tasks as the weather conditions led to landslides and flooding.

Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino said the city's weather-emergency response system was "working well".

"We've set up shelters across the city and at the moment we have about 100 people in them," he said. North of the capital, at Viterbo, a local train derailed because of bad weather. No one was hurt but one person had a dizzy spell.

The Civil Protection agency said it was "closely monitoring" the Tiber, especially as it starts to get bigger passing through the capital. Farther north, in Tuscany, Pisa and Florence braced for serious flooding around the Arno River. Public offices in Pisa faced closures as the river reached levels unseen in 20 years, forcing emergency workers to erect barriers and reinforce banks to channel water to the sea. Streets leading into the center of the city were blocked off as a safety precaution.

Roughly 1000 people were evacuated from structurally endangered buildings in a town between Pisa and Florence, as rains continued to swell rivers and streams.

Erosion imperiled the buildings along the Arno river in the town of San Miniato, as the river had consumed the foot of its embankment, the Civil Protection said.

Pisa Prefect Francesco Tagliente warned that flooding in nearby Ponsacco "is objectively very serious" after a surveillance trip of the area in a helicopter.

The official said the Era stream had eroded about a 20 metre stretch of embankment.

"The water is constantly leaving its riverbed, flooding the town centre," Tagliente said.

"Fire fighters are working with amphibious vehicles," Tagliente added.

Dozens of families in the area have been forced from their homes.

Other small towns outside Florence and nearby Prato were virtually surrounded by rising flood water as schools closed for the day.

Several homes were flooded in Prato as a river broke its banks.

Italian Premier Enrico Letta called for "the utmost attention" to be paid to the banks of the rivers Tiber and Arno, which are putting the cities of Rome, Florence and Pisa at risk.

"The extraordinary nature of the bad weather should bring us to react to the issue of the Arno river banks and to banks in the province of Rome", Letta said. "We have adopted the measures necessary for the emergency in Liguria and in Emilia with the necessary allocation of resources" and "from tonight we are starting to monitor the emergency situation around Rome and Pisa".

For Liguria, in northwest Italy, the government declared a state of emergency allowing relief funds to be allocated after two weeks of rain caused an estimated 350 million euros' worth of damages.

Near the northern city of Belluno and in other mountainous towns farther south schools were closed for excessive snow.

There were blackouts in several towns in the Alps but the jewel of the Dolomites, Cortina d'Ampezzo, managed to keep its power running. The south did not escape the weather's fury.

The gem of the Bay of Naples, the island of Capri, was battered by waves flooding its coast.

Another tourist magnet, Venice, saw its frequent problems with flooding deepened by incessant storms.

Half of the northeastern lagoon city was set to be flooded Friday night with rain-swollen seasonal high tides rising 140 cm above average sea level.

A third of Venice was already under water as waters passed the 125-cm mark amid an unrelenting wave of rain across Italy.

It was the fourth straight day the 'acqua alta' or high water went over the 110-cm level that covers low-lying areas like St Mark's Square, forcing tourists to wade across the landmark piazza.

If the acqua alta hits the forecast mark, pontoon walkways will have to be put up in St Mark's and other famous places. In the high-tide season, which lasts from autumn to spring, water routinely spills over the city's banks, flooding its streets and squares and occasionally threatening to set new records when the skies open, as they have done this week.

The highest-ever acqua alta came during the great flood of 1966, at 194 cm, when waters caused huge damage.

Levels of 120-130 cm above sea level are quite common in Venice, which is well-equipped to cope with its rafts of pontoons.

But anything much higher than that risks swamping the city and washing all the walkways away, as happened in December 2008 (156 cm), December 1986 (158 cm) and December 1979 (166 cm).

The causes of acqua alta are both natural and man-made.

Decades of pumping groundwater caused significant damage to the delicate foundation before the practice was called off.

Weather experts say the high-water threat has been increasing in recent years as heavier rains have hit northern Italy.

Other possible explanations for the phenomenon include the sea floor rising as a result of incoming silt and gas extraction in the sea off Venice undermining the islands.

According to a recent study, plate tectonics are also to blame as the Adriatic plate is sliding beneath the Apennine Mountains, causing the area to drop in elevation.

Scientists have conceived various ways of warding off the waters since a catastrophic flood in 1966 and a system of moveable flood barriers called MOSE is near completion after years of controversy.