When floods hit the northern Italian town of Lugo this past week, overflowing a local waterway and sending water spilling onto streets and surrounding fields, Irinel Lungu, 45, retreated with his wife and child to the second floor of their house.
As rescue workers navigated the flooded streets in dinghies to deliver baby formula and rescue the elderly from their homes, the couple watched in the cold as the water rose higher and higher.
Downstairs was “water up to my chest,” he said Saturday, adding, “We had nowhere to go.”
Aid has not yet arrived in parts of Lugo and other towns in northern Italy that were flooded where 14 people died and thousands were left homeless. Flooded rivers and canals submerged vast swathes of the countryside. Hundreds of dangerous landslides have paralyzed large parts of the area. And some landlocked mountain towns are completely isolated, literally only accessible by helicopter.
On Saturday, as rain fell again, residents around the ancient city of Ravenna – once the capital of the Byzantine Empire – faced flooding as water receded in some of the worst-hit towns revealed twisted and waterlogged furniture piled next to broken kitchen utensils. Soaked sofas were sunk into the mud. Olive oil bottles and cans, covered in mud, lined the streets. A car, lifted by the rushing water, is dangerously stuck in a garden fence.
The floods killed tens of thousands of lives in the region, Emilia-Romagna, because the unusual weather in some areas brought about half of the average annual rainfall in 36 hours. And experts say it’s no longer rare.
Extreme weather events are becoming more common in Europe, from violent storms and flash floods that killed dozens in Germany two years ago to scorching temperatures that recorded a normally temperate Britain. last July. Italy has suffered its own fair share of extreme events, caught between bouts of severe drought that parched cities, crippled agriculture and dried up the country’s breadbasket, and then rained down -rain and flooding like last week.
The extremes make for a brutal cycle where the slopes are stripped of trees due to summer fires, and the soils parched due to drought, fail to absorb the rain – in this case the bible its value. The pattern may leave millions of Italians surrounded by water today, but, in the summer, thirsty for a drop.
Last summer, the ground was so dry “that you could see cracks,” Roberto Zanardi, 59, who lives in the Lugo area, said with annoyance as he pointed to the submerged 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 are questioning whether the country is missing the opportunity to better prepare for severe flooding. many see coming and protecting the country with artificial basins or other solutions.
“Let’s keep in our heads that we live in an area at risk and that the process of tropicalization of the climate has also reached Italy,” Nello Musumeci, the country’s civil protection minister, said in an interview this past week in La Stampa, a newspaper based in Turin in northern Italy.
“On the agendas of all the governments of the last 80 years, the fragility of our territory has never been a real priority issue,” he added. “The question to ask is not if 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 participating in the Group of 7 meeting, so that she could visit the flooded areas on Sunday and lead the emergency response.
“Frankly, I cannot stay away from Italy in such a difficult time,” he said at a media briefing. “My conscience requires me to return.”
The flooding resulted in what experts described as a perfect storm of bad weather, already saturated land from storms earlier in the month and high seas.
Heavy rains covered much of Emilia-Romagna for a long time, pushed by fronts and blocked by the Apennine Mountains.
A storm in the nearby Adriatic Sea is holding water in the low plains.
Rivers, streams and canals overflowed, and in some cases destroyed their embankments, in an area that is one of the most vulnerable to flooding in Italy. Soil parched from months of drought struggles to absorb 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 burst over a 33-foot-high river embankment, engulfing the structure and removed its facade, which landed in a field across the street. It was left lying next to several cars and patches of torn and washed away asphalt.
Andrea Burattoni, a 48-year-old farmer who lives on the street, watched as the crane smashed into the walls, gradually revealing the remains of what used to be a house. Bed frames, kitchen furniture and a cabinet of sports trophies fell to the ground. The owner, an elderly resident, was forced to evacuate his family as the water rose.
But Mr. Burattoni and his family stayed, despite the fear they felt when the water flooded the fields.
“The roar is deafening, like an earthquake,” he said, referring to the earthquakes that in 2012 devastated the region. On Saturday, he surveyed his fields where he grew peaches next to vineyards, buried under muddy brown water. “The roots can’t breathe – it’s like they’re covered with a plastic tarp,” he said. “It will take weeks for the water to drain, but time is running out.”
Experts say much of the world can also expect more rare and intense storms as the world warms, increasing the urgency to act to protect communities.
Barbara Lastoria, a hydraulic engineer at the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, in Rome, said that the debates about water management that have arisen this past week because of the flooding are minor if the larger, and existential, issue of climate change is not addressed.
“Rising temperatures lead to an increase in extreme events such as drought and flooding – these are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “Increasing temperature is like fuel in the engine of extreme events: It must be dealt with first.”
For others, the flooding caused displacement.
Claudio Dosi, 46, a welder in Sant’Agata sul Santerno, said he planned to move away after his parents were evacuated from the local sports center when their house was flooded. “I’m not sure we have a future here,” he said.
Some don’t want to stop.
Lillia Osti, 77, said she has been living in the same house for 60 years, surrounded by wheat and pears in the northwest of Lugo. Flooding is not unusual in the low-lying area, he said, although water has never flooded “our furniture floor.”
Around him, family members removed rain-soaked doors to dry them. “It’s not normal, but as long as we live, we will rebuild,” he said.