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Landslide on Italian island sweeps away homes, turns roads into rivers of mud

Nov. 26, 2022 Updated Sat., Nov. 26, 2022 at 8:56 p.m.

Rescue members look at damaged cars in the southern Ischia island on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, following heavy rains that sparked a landslide.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
Rescue members look at damaged cars in the southern Ischia island on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, following heavy rains that sparked a landslide. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Gaia Pianigiani New York Times

At least one person was killed and nearly a dozen were missing Saturday on the southern Italian island of Ischia, where heavy rains caused a landslide that engulfed streets, vehicles and houses and left hundreds of people without electricity or running water.

Authorities said a woman in the town of Casamicciola, in Ischia’s north, died in the landslide, and they estimated that 10 people were missing. They declined to provide any further details as rescue operations continued on Ischia, a volcanic island and popular tourist destination off the coast of Naples.

As the inclement weather persisted Saturday, emergency workers trying to reach the island by motorboat and helicopter were held up, but at least 70 firefighters and 44 doctors did manage to arrive via aircraft and naval assets, according to the National Corps of the Firemen and the prefect of Naples, Claudio Palomba.

“We want to thank all the rescue workers who, in extremely difficult conditions, at the risk of their own lives, managed to land on the island today,” Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said at a news conference in Naples.

At least 70 residents have been evacuated from their homes, Palomba said. Rescue operations are expected to continue into the night.

“The night hours are coming,” said Fabrizio Curcio, head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency. “This won’t make our work easier. Today it was particularly difficult because of the weather and sea conditions.”

Footage on Italian television showed that some of Ischia’s winding mountain roads had become rivers of mud and debris. In a widely circulated video, rescue workers in Casamicciola can be heard trying to reassure a man, who was entirely covered in mud and floating outside his home, that they were coming to save him as he gripped a shutter.

“Don’t move,” a rescue worker shouted. “We’ll reach you in two minutes.”

Rescue workers elsewhere in the town were able to save two people who were dragged in their car into the sea when the landslide hit, Italy’s firefighter corps said in a statement. It added that its search for victims in affected residential buildings was continuing.

In colloquial Italian, Casamicciola is a synonym for disaster. The northern section of Ischia, especially, has experienced natural disasters for centuries.

In 1883, a strong earthquake killed more than 2,000 people in the area. In 1910, a flood and a landslide killed 11 people in Casamicciola. And more recently, in 2017, a smaller earthquake killed two women and injured 42 people in Casamicciola and in a nearby town, Lacco Ameno.

“Ischia is a very fragile territory – it’s a volcanic formation that has been subject to wild soil consumption and building at all costs for decades,” said Michele Buonomo, an official with the Italian environmental association Legambiente who used to be in charge of the region of Campania, where Naples is. “Such conditions further endanger an area that is naturally so vulnerable.”

“Intense rainfalls like today’s have become more and more frequent,” he said. “And so climate change will only exacerbate the high hydrological risks that some areas in Italy like Ischia already have.”

Italy’s National Research Council noted Saturday that from midnight to 6 a.m., local rain gauges had recorded 126 millimeters, or nearly 5 inches, of rain, “a number never reached in such a period.” The council said that it had been monitoring rainfalls for the past 20 years, and that the record clearly indicated the gravity of the event.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said Saturday that she had been in contact with the civil protection minister, Nello Musumeci; the Civil Protection Department; and the Campania regional government “to follow the evolution of the wave of bad weather that has hit Ischia.”

“The government expresses its closeness to the citizens and mayors of the municipalities on the island of Ischia and thanks the rescuers engaged in the search for the missing,” Meloni said in a statement.

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