Eleven years ago this month, back-to-back earthquakes rocked the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, which was devastated this week by another catastrophe: widespread flooding that killed at least 14 people and displaced thousands.
On Friday, rescue workers continued to clear the streets of mud, while towns in the Ravenna region remained flooded. Landslides have blocked hundreds of roads making travel in the region difficult – with some towns completely cut off – and electricity is still out in some places.
Officials said the full extent of the damage remains unclear in a region that has recently suffered from a drought and where few people have forgotten the devastating 2012 earthquake.
“We could not have imagined that we would celebrate the 11th anniversary of the earthquake – moreover with the satisfaction of rebuilding almost everything or almost everything – with a new earthquake to deal with, because that is what it is,” Stefano Bonaccini, Emilia-Romagna region’s president said, referring to the floods in Friday evening press conference.
But he added that the 2012 earthquake had taught an important lesson: “While dealing with an emergency, it is important to plan in advance and think about reconstruction,” adding: “We must continue the march and return to producing and creating jobs, to give people a chance.”
While the Emilia-Romagna region may be less known to foreigners than neighboring Tuscany, many will be familiar with some of its food products, such as Parmesan cheese, from Parma and Reggio Emilia; balsamic vinegar from Modena; and a treat for Parma ham. Coastal towns such as Rimini and Riccione are popular beach resorts.
But most businesses in the area closed their doors this week. Even if it survived the rains, hundreds of roads and bridges, necessary to transport goods, were out of action.
“We are waiting for the waters to recede before we can assess the damage,” said Annalisa Sassi, president of the area’s industrial association. “What I can tell you, knowing this area, is that they work very hard. So I can imagine we will find the rich spirit that came out after the earthquake. These are people who don’t give up.”
Experts described this week’s rainfall as exceptional. Some areas received nearly 20 inches in 36 hours, about half the annual average. Heavy rains in early May had already saturated the soil, and on Tuesday, a storm system that was slowly moving across Italy brought heavy rains back over the same area.
With the earth already close to saturation, like a sponge already soaked with water, the rain had nowhere to go but to flow down to the lowest points, flooding rivers, streams, and other low-lying areas.
Nearly two dozen rivers broke their banks in a vast area between the Apennine Mountains – where hill villages were left isolated by landslides – and the Adriatic coast.
“Many of the mayors are tired,” Erin Priollo, the district vice president, said at a news conference Friday, describing the rescue effort involving hundreds of emergency workers. Fabrizio Curcio, head of the National Agency for Civil Protection, said the vastness of the area affected by floods and landslides “complicated the situation”.
Precipitation this weekend is not expected to rival levels seen in the past several days, but many areas are still vulnerable: Rivers are high, so any additional rain could exacerbate flooding or cause landslides.
“These relatively short and small rivers that flow between the mountains and the sea have been dry for a year and a half,” said Marina Baldi, a climatologist at the Italian National Research Council. “They couldn’t take in a lot of water.”
This part of Emilia-Romagna is particularly vulnerable. Its fertile flat lands, once swampy just above sea level, have long been subject to floods. The Apennines are prone to landslides due to the brittle rocks of which they are composed, and the grades of the slopes make them unstable in the event of heavy rains.
Usually, such heavy rains hit Italy once every 100 to 150 years, Ms. Baldi said, mostly in autumn or winter, rather than in May. “It was a completely anomalous phenomenon,” she said, referring to the recent flooding.
Ms Sassi, of the Industrialists’ Association, said that “new approaches” must be adopted when it comes to drawing up future plans and that these methods should take into account abnormal weather patterns. “It’s a priority issue for us, one that we’ve been talking about over the past few years.”
The Italian government is expected to declare a state of emergency in the region next week, but has already allocated 30 million euros, about $32 million, to help with the response. Government ministers also raised the possibility of requesting assistance from the European Union.
Calculating the damage to agriculture will only be possible once the waters recede from the fields, and the vineyards on the hillsides are cemented, said Stefano Francia, regional president of the CIA Farmers’ Association.
“But there is a great desire to start over,” he said. “It is the spirit of Emilia-Romagna not to give up.”
Flooding prompted Formula 1 to cancel the region’s Grand Prix this weekend, saying the deadly floods made it unsafe to proceed with the race at Imola, in Emilia-Romagna. Ferrari, which is headquartered in the region, has donated 1 million euros to the regional civil protection agency.
The decision to continue the Bruce Springsteen concert was met with some criticism on social media, even though it took place in Ferrara, far from the flooded areas. “Maybe it could have been postponed,” Bonaccini, head of the Emilia-Romagna region, told Italian television.
The hoteliers’ association of the beach town of Riccione, hit by the storm this week, announced Friday that hotels will be open and ready to receive holidaymakers next week.
“Our beach will be ready as always to welcome tourists, and we must send a clear message,” said Mr Bonaccini on Friday. “Nothing will stop, people can and should lend a hand to our economy.”
Judson Jones Contributed reporting from Atlanta.