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Landslides ravage Calabria, Sicily

Thousands evacuated as heavy rains unleash debris

16 February, 17:39
Landslides ravage Calabria, Sicily (ANSA) - Messina, February 16 - A rash of mudslides unleashed by heavy downpours this weekend continued wreaking havoc in towns in Sicily and Calabria on Tuesday as unremitting rainfall doused southern Italy.

Authorities in Calabria reported that all 2,300 residents of the Calabrian town of Maierato were forced to evacuate when a section of hillside broke off on Tuesday morning, burying their homes under rubble and debris.

''We were out looking at a small rockslide which had blocked a road when the whole hillside came down,'' said Mayor Sergio Rizzo.

''I'll never forget it,'' he said.

Though there were no injuries or deaths, relief workers on the scene described ''apocalyptic'' devastation and said that Maierato had been reduced to a ''ghost town''.

Prosecutors in Reggio Calabria on Tuesday announced they had opened an investigation into the causes of the mudslide, which many experts blamed on unregulated building and inadequate soil engineering.

The president of the Calabria region, Agazio Loiero, called on the government to enact a nationwide public works program to safeguard areas at risk of natural disasters.

''We don't need a bridge to Sicily,'' said the center-left governor, referring to the government's project to build the world's longest suspension bridge connecting the island to the mainland.

''What we need is to protect people who live in towns and cities under the continual threat of landslides and floods''.

The landslides in Maierato were among over 200 other around the region since Sunday, which have also seen evacuations in outlying areas around the city of Cosenza.

Flooding and debris was also responsible for a number of broken water mains around the region which have left thousands of area faucets running dry. The area around Catanzaro was also dogged by mudflows, which have reportedly cut off 27 thoroughfares leading into the city forcing emergency traffic onto secondary roads.

According to Italian environmental protection group Legambiente, every town and city in Calabria has areas at risk of flooding or landslides. The study estimated that 60% of those towns have zoned areas at high flood risk for heavy industry. As many as a quarter reported hospitals, schools and hotels in high-risk areas.

While over 70% had emergency plans in case of these disasters, Legambiente said more than half of them needed updating.


In Sicily, residents of a town near Messina prepared for the worst as a slow-moving mudflow on the move since Saturday night threatened to bury the town. Authorities said the landslide flowing through San Fratello, which has already forced over 1,500 people from their homes, came to a near halt on Monday during a brief respite from the rain.

But another cloudburst on Tuesday and more wet weather in store has experts worrying the mud could start flowing again.

''This is a nasty situation,'' said National Institute of Geophysics director Domenico Patane'.

''The layer of destabilized soil here is very deep and about a kilometre wide,'' he said.

Patane' warned that if the hillside started sliding again, the western half the town could be destroyed.

Hundreds of other buildings have already been damaged, including the town's Renaissance-era San Nicola Church, whose 15th-century crucifix was delivered to safety this weekend by parishioners.

On Sunday, residents took the cross and a statue of San Nicola, the town's patron saint, on a procession through areas still untouched by the landslides.

San Fratello is just across the northeastern tip of Sicily from towns near Messina devastated by flash floods in October that killed 37 people. Legambiente on Monday said that deforestation and shortsighted urban planning were to blame for both calamities, which it warned would keep recurring unless the government took measures to prevent them. A spokesman for the civil protection agency, Bernardo De Bernardinis on Tuesday agreed that ''we need to acknowledge Sicily's vulnerability on this front and do something about it''.

Photo: An image of Maierato on Tuesday afternoon.

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