When floods hit the northern Italian city of Lugo last week, causing a local stream to overflow and pouring water into the surrounding streets and fields, Irinel Longo, 45, retreated with his wife and child to the second floor of their home.
As rescue workers navigated the flooded streets in boats delivering baby formula and rescuing elderly people from their homes, the couple watched in the cold as the water rose higher and higher.
Downstairs, “the water was up to my chest,” he said on Saturday, adding, “We had nowhere to go.”
Relief has not yet reached some areas of Lugo and other northern Italian towns that were inundated by floods that have killed 14 people and displaced thousands. Swollen rivers and canals flooded vast swathes of the countryside. Hundreds of dangerous landslides paralyzed much of the area. And some landlocked towns in the mountains are quite isolated and can only be reached by helicopter.
On Saturday, as it rained again, residents around the ancient city of Ravenna – once the capital of the Byzantine Empire – faced the deluge as the waters receded in some of the hardest-hit towns, revealing mutilated and submerged furniture piled next to broken kitchen utensils. . Couches soaked in mud. The streets were lined with jars of olive oil and canned food covered with mud. A car, lifted by the rushing water, was teetering precariously on a garden fence.
Floods have upended tens of thousands of lives in the region, Emilia-Romagna, where in some areas exceptional weather has caused about half of the usual annual rainfall in 36 hours. Experts say it may no longer be exceptional.
Extreme weather events are becoming more common in Europe, from violent storms and massive flooding that killed dozens in Germany two years ago to record-breaking scorching temperatures in temperate Britain last July. Italy has suffered its fair share of extreme events, caught between bouts of severe drought that has crippled towns, crippled agriculture, dried up the country’s breadbasket, and then heavy rains and floods like the one that occurred last week.
The extremes lead to a brutal cycle where hills stripped of trees by summer wildfires, and lands parched by drought, fail to absorb the precipitation—in this case, biblical amounts of it. This pattern may leave millions of Italians surrounded by water now but, in summer, thirsty for a drop.
Last summer, the ground was so dry “you could see cracks,” said Roberto Zanardi, 59, who lives in the Lugo region, angrily as he pointed to the flooded pear and persimmon groves around him on Saturday. “Look at them now.”
Italy’s leaders are trying to come to terms with what scientists say is the new normal of climate change, but some lawmakers question whether the country has missed opportunities to better prepare for the severe floods many saw coming and to protect the country with artificial ponds or other solutions.
“Let’s think that we live in a vulnerable area and that a tropical climate process has also reached Italy,” Nilo Musumesi, the country’s civil protection minister, said in an interview last week with La Stampa newspaper. Newspaper based in Turin in northern Italy.
He added, “On the agendas of all governments over the past 80 years, the fragility of our lands has never been a real priority issue.” “The question to ask is not whether a catastrophic event like Tuesday’s will happen again, but when and where it will happen.”
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced on Saturday that she would cut short her trip to Japan, where she was taking part in the G7 meeting, so she could visit flooded areas on Sunday and lead an emergency response.
“Honestly, I can’t stay too far away from Italy at such a difficult time,” she said at a media briefing. “My conscience requires me to go back.”
The flood was caused by what experts described as a perfect storm of bad weather, already saturated soil from storms earlier in the month and high seas.
Heavy rainstorms settled over a large area of Emilia-Romagna for a long period of time, driven by fronts and blocked by the Apennine Mountains.
A storm in the nearby Adriatic Sea trapped the waters in the low-lying plains.
Rivers, streams, and canals overflowed, and in some cases their dams eroded, in an area that is one of the most vulnerable to flooding in Italy. Soil that had dried out from months of drought struggled to absorb that water.
On Saturday, along the banks of the Santerno River in Emilia-Romagna, workers operated a crane to demolish a two-story building after water breached the 33-foot river embankment, submerging the structure and stripping it of its facade. Fell in a field across the road. It was left lying next to several cars and patches of asphalt torn and swept away.
Andrea Buratoni, a 48-year-old farmer who lives down the street, has been watching the crane slam into the walls, gradually revealing the remains of what was once a house. The bed frames, the kitchen furniture, and the sports trophy locker slumped to the floor. The owner, an elderly person, was evacuated by his family as the water level rose.
Nevertheless, Mr. Buratoni and his family remained where they were, in spite of the fear they felt when the water swelled in the fields.
“The roar was deafening, like an earthquake,” he said, referring to the earthquakes that devastated the area in 2012. On Saturday, he surveyed his fields where he grew peaches beside his vineyards, buried under muddy, brown water. “The roots don’t breathe – it’s as if they were covered with a plastic sheet,” he said. “It will take weeks for the water to dry up, but the season is over.”
Experts say much of the world can also expect more unusual and severe storms as the Earth warms, adding to the urgency for action to protect communities.
Barbara Lastoria, a hydraulics engineer at the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research in Rome, said the debates about water management that emerged last week due to floods mean little if the larger and existential issue of climate change is not addressed.
“Increasing temperatures lead to extremes such as droughts and floods – two sides of the same coin,” she said. “Overheating is like gasoline in an extreme engine: it has to be dealt with first.”
For some, the flood was a reason for resettlement.
Claudio Dussi, 46, a welder in Sant’Agata sul Santerno, said he was considering leaving after his parents were evacuated to a local sports center when their home filled with water. “I’m not sure we have a future here,” he said.
Others don’t want to budge.
Lilia Osti, 77, said she had lived in the same house, surrounded by fields of wheat and pears northwest of Lugo, for 60 years. Flooding was not unusual in that low area, she said, although no water had been flooded by “the ground floor in the furniture”.
Around her, family members removed the rain-soaked doors to dry. “It is not normal, but as long as we are alive, we will rebuild,” she said.