As rescuers continued to search for five people still missing after a catastrophic landslide in Ischia, anger was growing on the southern Italian island on Sunday over the years of rampant illegal construction that contributed to the disaster.
Seven people, including a three-week-old baby and a pair of young siblings, are confirmed to have died in Saturday’s landslide, which was triggered by a violent storm that sent mud and debris from Monte Epomeo, a 789-metre (2,590ft) peak, crashing into the hamlet of Casamicciola Terme.
The same hamlet was hit by a landslide in 2009, when a 14-year-old girl died, and damaged again by an earthquake in 2017.
Dozens of homes were destroyed, trees uprooted and cars swept into the sea in the latest tragedy.
Giorgia Meloni’s government, which came to power in October, announced a state of emergency on Sunday, adding it has set aside €2m (£1.7m), the first tranche of a fund that will be spent on repairing the damage.
But for many, the move is too little, too late.
“I’m furious,” said Franco, as he cleared mud from the entrance of what was a hotel owned by his family. “This is the second time I’ve had to do this – after the 2009 landslide they made lots of promises to make the area more secure. They knew the risks but did nothing.”
The storm, which followed days of heavy rain across much of Italy, is reported to be the worst in 20 years to have hit Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples, with 126mm of rain falling in six hours.
Casamicciola Terme is home to just over 2,000 people and lies in an area of the island – known for its natural hot springs and popular with Italian and foreign tourists – that is extremely vulnerable to landslides and seismic activity. Seventy-two landslides were registered to have occurred in the hamlet between 2018 and 2021.
The number of illegally built homes and other buildings – estimated at 28,000 across the island – has been blamed for exacerbating the damage.
The illegal building also meant that trees, which play an essential role as buttresses in reducing landslide risk, were torn down. Experts also say that a geological survey assessing the risks in the area was last done 20 years ago.
“This is a region predisposed to landslides,” said Micla Pennetta, a professor of geomorphology at Federico II University in Naples. “So much of the devastation in the past has influenced the current morphology of Ischia. Seismic activity also plays a part, but on top of the natural aspects we have deforestation and subsequent cementification – this reduced the capacity for water to be absorbed, enabling it to rapidly reach roads and homes, causing extreme damage.”
Pennetta added: “Not only has the geological map done 20 years ago not been updated, but it was never detailed enough to properly identify the risks. And if no proper studies are done, then people can build wherever they want.”
Ischia has a population of about 22,000 and although it attracts far less attention than its more glitzy neighbour, Capri, over the years the island has drawn a crowd who prefer more low-key holidays, including the former German chancellor Angela Merkel, and who want to experience its natural hot springs.
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