Vernazza, Cinque Terre: A personal account of the flood damage

I would like to pass on a very moving article from one of the co-founders of Save Vernazza as she visits her village for the first time after the flooding.  Thank you Michele, I can’t imagine how difficult that day must have been for you.

November 21, 2011 “If you lose money you lose much, If you lose friends you lose more, If you lose faith you lose all.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

On Saturday, I went to Vernazza for the first time since the catastrophe of October 25, 2011. I went with Ruth, who had already been to Vernazza two mornings after the flood. I personally felt that I needed to see the aftermath with my own eyes. I’ve been hiding behind my computer for the past 3 1/2 weeks, working continuously on Save Vernazza, and I’ve seen almost every photo and video available. Now the time had come to face the beast.

The morning started out in La Spezia, where half of Vernazza now resides. To an outsider unfamiliar with the faces, all one would have to do is look down to know who was heading that way. If you weren’t wearing knee-high mud boots, you weren’t going to Vernazza. Trains in and out of town are limited and access to Vernazza is under tight control. Upon the trains’ arrival in Vernazza only one car door opens, therefore we are segregated to the two train cars flanking that one door. As one exits the train, documents are checked for those faces not already familiar to the police manning the station.

The train door opens and all senses are triggered. The smells, a mix of mud, stagnant water and mold. The sounds, bells chiming on the hour and the half, but instead of the usual background noise being sounds of the sea, it is the hum of heavy machinery. The sights, a devastation the likes of which I have never witnessed before. Vernazza, previously a kaleidoscope of pinks, yellows, blues and greens is now shrouded in hues of greys and browns.

Rick Steves said it best when he wrote that he felt like he “lost a friend” when he heard the news of October 25th. In front of me now was that friend, assaulted, gutted and left for dead. The images were almost incomprehensible. In the upper Fontana Vecchia area of town, the canal is gone, landfilled to street level. The parking lot is about 10 meters (over 30 ft.) higher than before, with the Pirate bar still submerged in the rubble.

Il Pirate still buried as the owners look on

My former B&B, Camere Giuliano, is unrecognizable. The trickling canals that ran on either side of the property became raging rivers on October 25 and the beautiful gardens that once surrounded the property, well tended by the locals growing their fruits and vegetables, and caring for their chickens and rabbits, were now deep fissures in the land. The trenino tracks above (small trains used to harvest the grapes) were busted to pieces with terraces and stone walls built by Giuliano washed away with the force of the current.

At the center of two raging rivers

The main street, Via Roma, is by far the hardest to look at. Now that the mud is being cleared away, the damage is all the more obvious. Cavernous holes take the place of our markets, cafes, restaurants and shops. Storefronts no longer have doors; there is no point with nothing left to lock up. Vernazza is a shell of its former self.

What remains is the spirit of Vernazza and this is evident in the effort and progress being made. The younger generation of Vernazza has stepped up to the plate and they are working around the clock alongside the emergency crews. The main square is their headquarters. Tents have been erected to act as the cafeteria. The church has become a supply center for food, clothing, and other essential items, even containing a makeshift pharmacy.

The second headquarters can be found at the Town Hall. Town officials are working tirelessly on an accurate assessment of the damages and the costs associated with the rebuild. At this point, no one knows what government funds will be available to Vernazza. The Town estimates that the cost of rebuilding Vernazza is 109 million Euro. The Italian government has allotted 65 million euro to be divided amongst all affected areas in Liguria and Tuscany. Clearly, help from the outside is essential or Vernazza risks becoming a ghost town.

As we stopped to hug friends and share news, we got more information on the stories within the story. The pause in the flooding that Valentino speaks of in his personal account saved many lives. The women in the hair salon were saved by that pause. Olenka and the others from Pizzeria Erocle threw a rope over to the women still inside and were able to pull them to safety across the current. Michele Greco, one of our founders, was able to escape her shop during that 10 minute period by pulling herself out the door and over to the next entry way that lead to the apartments above. The 40 people in the Blue Marlin were heroically saved by Massimo, the owner, who hammered through the wall with Jeff pulling people through to safety on the other side where a staircase to the upper floors was accessible.

One of Vernazza's true heroes

The last woman to leave the Blue Marlin, already having sent her daughter through the hole and standing waist deep in the gushing water, thought she would never see her family again. The people in Il Baretto restaurant, Gianni Franzi restaurant, the town bakery, the town food market, all escaped through small windows that faced the backs of their buildings. Gino from the town bakery almost died in the attempt to save his beloved cat. Sauro of the souvenier shop Bazzar is said to have been frozen with fear, unable to move and thereafter carried away with the torrent.

The consistent message about town was not how unfortunate our situation is but how fortunate we were not to have lost more people than we did.

The sentiment shared by everyone in town is “we will not give up hope and we will rebuild, no matter the cost.” In speaking with Carmen of the Blue Marlin bar, this sentiment was all the more evident.

On the morning of October 25, 2009, Vernazza awoke to tragic news. The 18 year old daughter of Massimo and Carmen of the Blue Marlin bar had been killed in a car accident. Camilla was an intelligent, vibrant young woman. A child when I arrived in 2005, I watched her blossom into a beautiful young lady with a bright future ahead of her. Her untimely passing knocked the wind out of the community. Vernazza was stunned, shaken and shocked. The turnout for Camilla’s funeral was overwhelming. Every single shop, restaurant and bar closed. The town stood together to provide strength, love and support for the grieving parents Massimo and Carmen, Camilla’s younger sister Maria, and grandfather and grandmother Camillo and Pina.

Prior to the catastrophe of this past October 25, this date already symbolized a tragedy for Vernazza. Horrifying ironic, the catastrophe that took the lives of 3 Vernazzans, terrorized locals and visitors alike, and left the town crippled occurred on this very same date. When speaking with Carmen this past Saturday, she told us that she and her family could leave Vernazza and relocate to her hometown of Barcelona where her father had a big house awaiting them. No one could blame her at this point for throwing in the towel. For her and others the date of October 25 may feel to be a cursed one in Vernazza. Instead, she has chosen to remain in Vernazza because, as she stated, “Vernazza is where my heart is”. The road ahead may be long, hard and costly but she said that even if all she can do is rebuild the Blue Marlin one chair at a time that is how she will do it.

If you have been to Vernazza, you understand that it is a special community. Vernazza touches people in a way others places do not. If you have never been to Vernazza all you need to do is read the numerous messages we have received worldwide to understand its effect. One could say that October 25, 2011 destroyed Vernazza. But only the physical town. The community of Vernazza is strong, determined and committed. The people are on the ground, digging out stone by stone, dedicated to rebuilding, one chair at a time.

For donation information, frequent news updates and photos please visit Save Vernazza 

For updated information regarding Monterosso and the other effected areas along with more photos of Vernazza, visit Come to Liguria

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