50 Days of Rain Leaves Italy Soggy

When the sun made a brief return earlier this week after weeks of heavy rains, Romans didn't start preparing for the next onslaught of bad weather. Instead they headed straight to the banks of the bulging Tiber River to take pictures of the dangerously high water and to marvel at the colorful plastic chairs, wine bottles and dead animals that floated by. At the bridge of angels near Vatican City, thousands of onlookers watched as workers tried to figure out how to safely dislodge the mangled mess of logs, barges and floating disco-bars that had smashed against the bridge without damaging the ancient structure.

More than 50 days of nearly nonstop precipitation throughout Italy has caused extensive flooding, 10 deaths and millions of euros worth of damage. Rivers running through Turin, Florence and Rome were at greatest risk of overflowing, according to civil-protection officials. They've been fretting not just about flooding but also about major damage to these historical city centers. Guido Bertolaso, the head of the Italian Civil Protection Department, said the barges and floating restaurants and bars in Rome had not been properly secured to their moorings despite the warnings about the rising river.

In Venice, the worst floods in 22 years have plagued the sinking city in recent weeks. In early December surfers even aquaplaned on one-meter-deep water in St. Mark's square. City hoteliers continue to offer free rubber boots with a weekend stay. Ignoring the civil-protection authorities' pleas to keep visitors away to ensure their safety as the waters rise, Venice Mayor Massimo Cacciari instead urged tourists not to cancel plans even when 99 percent of the city was underwater. "Don't worry, there is no danger," he wrote on the city's tourism Web site. "High water is a phenomenon that quickly disappears."

More rain fell in one day in Rome last week than the city usually gets in all of December. The Tiber River at one point crested at 13 meters above normal, and the city's Aniene River overflowed its banks, flooding an industrial park and hundreds of hectares of farmland. Local residents took it upon themselves to divert traffic in the most flooded areas with makeshift roadblocks. Many residents have been in denial as to the gravity of the situation, says Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno. "We have been hit by a wave of exceptionally bad weather," he says. "In Rome, it has been like an earthquake."

The Italian ministry of agriculture says that the rains so far have caused €200 million worth of damage, which will result in higher food prices and many fresh-food shortages. Ancient olive groves, fruit orchards and vineyards are now flooded with polluted water. In the northern regions of Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta, heavy snows have resulted in multiple avalanche alerts. That didn't stop skiers, of course, from flocking to the slopes in record numbers, ignoring the warnings. Ski-resort reservations for the Christmas holiday season in the Dolomites is up nearly 30 percent over last year.

Bertolaso says that because the disaster isn't concentrated in just one area, people take it less seriously. But he says mini-disasters are springing up all across the country. On Mount Etna in Sicily, eight Boy Scouts were trapped over the weekend at 1,700 meters on the slopes after a blizzard proved too dangerous for snow-removal equipment to navigate. At the same time, a mudslide in Reggio di Calabria blocked a major train line into that region just as a train with 200 passengers was approaching. Seas are so rough around Sicily that ferry service has been unavailable to the outlying Aeolian Islands, effectively stranding those residents without supplies. An intercity train was struck by lightning in the Pugliese region of Foggia on Dec 13. A main road on the island of Elba washed away last weekend, leaving the town of Rio Marina cut off from the rest of the island. More than 200 people were evacuated from their homes in Salerno last Friday when a small river broke its banks.

The weather may be an act of God, but not the poor condition of roads, bridges and other infrastructure. "After years of neglecting the territory," says Bertolaso, "some of our chickens are coming home to roost".