5 May 2016

Mudslides in Campania

Towns and villages destroyed in natural disaster

Dramatic picture shows mud cascading down mountainside

Italy was in shock on this day in 1998 as a series of mudslides brought devastation in Campania, destroying or badly damaging more than 600 homes and killing 161 people. Almost 2,000 people were left with nowhere to live.

The mudslides were set off by several days of torrential rain and blamed on the increasingly unstable landscape caused by the deforestation and unregulated construction of roads and buildings.

Torrents of mud coursed down mountainsides in several areas between Avellino and Salerno to the east of Naples.  The town of Sarno bore the brunt of the damage but the villages of Quindici, Siano and Bracigliano were also badly hit.

The accumulation of large quantities of volcanic ash deposited by historic eruptions of the nearby Mount Vesuvius is thought to have made the mudslides particularly fast moving and the affected communities were quickly overwhelmed.

Scenes in the Sarno suburb of Episcopio was said to be reminiscent of nearby Pompeii, the city destroyed in the Vesuvius eruption of 79AD, with some streets completely buried in mud up to four metres deep.

Hospitals and schools were destroyed and volunteers joined rescue workers in digging for survivors over several days. It is believed that the bodies of some victims were never found, particularly among a significant number of illegal immigrants in the area.

Residents wade through mud in Sarno
Nearly 4,000 firefighters, troops, forest rangers and medical workers, including 80 United States marines based in Naples, helped with the rescue operation.

One factor thought to have contributed to the unstable mountainsides was the replacement of chestnut trees, which have large root systems that help hold the ground together, with hazelnut trees, which are more profitable but have much smaller root systems.

Environmentalists also pointed to the burning of trees and brush to plant commercial crops and the uncontrolled expansion of towns and villages, with parts of streams and river beds disappearing under concrete and asphalt and drainage channels often clogged with rubbish and building waste.

Many houses, apartment blocks and industrial buildings were said to be shoddily built with inadequate foundations, which meant they quickly collapsed when the mudslides hit.

The catastrophe prompted the Italian Ministry of the Environment to introduce legislative measures for environmental protection which have come to be known as Legge Sarno (Sarno Laws).

But the government was accused of responding too slowly as the disaster was unfolding, failing to issue evacuation instructions even after the Mayor of Sarno telephoned the Civil Protection Department to warn that a torrent of mud, rocks and broken trees was heading for the town.  Rescuers did not arrive until after nightfall, which meant valuable time was lost in which helicopters and other equipment could not be used.

Campania has been plagued by mudslides.  There have been almost 650 since 1918, the highest for any region in Italy.  In fact, it is the most dangerous part of Italy for natural disasters, with almost one-third of all the country's floods, landslides and earthquakes over the past 70 years taking place within its borders.

Travel tip:

Sarno is situated in an area of 500 square kilometres known as the Sarno basin, in which some 750,000 people live.  It is made up of largely industrial towns but also contains the ruins of Pompeii, some 20 kilometres to the west. Parts of the Roman city buried by the 79AD eruption of Vesuvius were unearthed in 1599 during work to alter the course of the River Sarno, although serious excavation did not begin until 1748.

Photo of Cava de' Tirreni
Porticoes line the historic main
street in Cava de' Tirreni
Travel tip:

A diocese of the Roman Catholic church from around 1,000AD, Sarno had religious ties for many years with Cava de' Terreni, a town a few kilometres from Salerno notable for a Benedictine abbey and a beautiful porticoed main street in the commercial district of what was once the most prosperous town in the area.


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