Showing posts with label Vajont Dam. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vajont Dam. Show all posts

9 October 2016

Vajont Dam Disaster

Catastrophic flood may have killed 2,500

The Vajont Dam, pictured before the disaster of 1963, was considered a triumph of  engineering.
The Vajont Dam, pictured before the disaster of 1963, was
considered a triumph of  engineering.
Prone to earthquakes because of its unfortunate geology, Italy has suffered many natural disasters over the centuries, yet the horrific catastrophe that took place on this day 53 years ago in an Alpine valley about 100km north of Venice, killing perhaps as many as 2,500 people, was to a significant extent man-made.

The Vajont Dam Disaster of October 9, 1963 happened when a section of a mountain straddling the border of the Veneto and Fruili-Venezia Giulia regions in the Fruilian Dolomites collapsed in a massive landslide, dumping 260 million cubic metres of forest, earth and rock into a deep, narrow reservoir created to generate hydroelectric power for Italy's industrial northern cities.

The chunk of Monte Toc that came away after days of heavy rain was the size of a small town yet within moments it was moving towards the water at 100km per hour (62mph) and hit the surface of the reservoir in less than a minute.

The effect was almost unimaginable.  Within seconds, 50 million cubic metres of water was displaced, creating a tsunami that rose to 250m high.  The dam held, but the colossal volume of water had nowhere to go but over the top and into the Piave valley below.

Where the village of Longarone had stood, all that  remained was mud and debris.
Where the village of Longarone had stood, all that
 remained was mud and debris.
The landslide was timed at 10.39pm.  In the valley, dotted with villages, many residents were already in bed, others locking up, some making their way home.  They had no chance of escape.  The only warning was a rumbling in the distance, accompanied by a sudden, strengthening wind, that rapidly turned into a deafening roar.

The force behind the surge of water was such that its initial impact with the valley floor after its 250m descent through the narrow Vajont gorge left a crater 60m (200ft) deep and 80m across.

As the water rushed onwards into the Piave valley, it pushed along a pocket of air generating more energy than was created by the atomic bomb that flattened Hiroshima. It was so powerful that most of the victims were found naked, their clothes ripped off them by the blast.

Within a matter of minutes, the villages of Longarone, Pirago, Rivalta, Villanova and Faè had been wiped from the map and 80 per cent of their inhabitants were dead, accounting for around 2,000 of the fatalities.

Others died in villages further downstream, as well as on the opposite side of the reservoir to the landslide, where another huge wave swept up the hillside.

It is estimated that more than half those killed were never found, their bodies buried too deep to be recovered under the vast mud plain that the water left behind.  Others were carried for miles along the Piave River, some possibly into the Adriatic.

The collapse of the mountain filled in almost  half of the reservoir in minutes
The collapse of the mountain filled in almost
half of the reservoir in minutes
A cemetery exists at Fortogna, which commemor- ates all those known to have died, although the headstones - identical blocks of marble in uniform rows - do not necessarily correspond with the remains buried immediately underneath. In many cases there are no remains at all.  To the dismay of relatives, flowers and personal memorials are not permitted to be left.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Italian government and the two authorities involved with the construction of the dam - the Adriatic Energy Corporation (Societa Adriatica di Elettrica) and, at a later stage, the National Entity for Electricity (Ente nazionale per l'energia elettrica) - attributed the catastrophe to natural causes. Journalists who suggested otherwise were accused of "undermining public order".

Later, however, it emerged that many warnings about the instability of the site chosen had been ignored and the project had been allowed to continue despite a number of landslides over a period of four years before the disaster.

A number of engineers eventually went on trial and some were convicted of negligence but the sentences handed out were seen by many as too lenient.  The government was urged to sue the Adriatic Energy Corporation for compensation but in the end decided against it.

Among events held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the disaster in 2013, a stage of the Giro d'Italia cycle race finished in the municipality of Erto e Casso on the northern side of the reservoir, with the next stage starting in Longarone.

Longarone was completely rebuilt as a modern village
Longarone was completely rebuilt as a modern village
Travel tip:

Nowadays, the largely undamaged Vajont Dam - itself a triumph of engineering, at 262m (860ft) the tallest in the world at the time of construction - is open to the public and a small memorial chapel has been built.  The rebuilt village of Longarone contains a memorial church designed by one of Italy's most influential 20th century architects, Giovanni Michelucci.

Travel tip:

The most important city in the upper Piave valley, situated about 30km south of Longarone, is Belluno, a former Alpine Town of the Year, where there has been a settlement of some kind since around 220BC.  Subsequently it passed into the hands of the Romans.  The sarcophagus of Caius Flavius Hosilius and his wife Domitia can be found in the church of Santo Stefano, which was built on the site of a Roman cemetery.