Landslide tragedy shifts Italy’s focus to illegal construction

CASAMICCIOLA TERME, Italy — A bulldozer stopped and all fell silent during the night as a firefighter, spotting a pink sweater by the light of a generator, reached into the mud-caked rubble. This time it was just a sweater.

Torrential rain last weekend sent a powerful landslide through Casamicciola Terme, a port town on the southern Italian island of Ischia, killing 11 residents – including a newborn baby and two young children – and washing away homes and burying streets. For the past week, rescue workers and volunteers have continued digging for survivors, digging up the city under thick mudflows.

“I was born here and I don’t remember anything like that,” said Filippo Martira, a 53-year-old hotel worker who covered boot-to-hat in mud as he helped clean up along Via Lava, so called by residents , because it has served as a gateway for the burping of the mountain for centuries.

But as some evacuees returned to search for their belongings, many felt an unwelcome scrutiny from a nation questioning whether the island’s abundance of illegally built homes had increased the vulnerability of a city located in a geologically fragile zone to the Bay of Naples is .

The authorities have not clarified which buildings may have been erected illegally. But a decade-long string of amnesties by various Italian governments may have made most of them legal anyway. This has led to hand-wringing and bitter finger-pointing among politicians, including Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right party.

“We haven’t had a zoning plan since the 1960s,” said Vincenzo Capuano, 64, a townsman, as friends emptied bucket after bucket of his basement. “Politicians have never decided where residents can build here. There is no way to build legally.”

Illegal development has ravaged Italy’s coasts, hillsides and cities, but the practice is particularly widespread in the poorer southern regions, including Campania. On Ischia, an island of 63,000 people famous for its thermal baths, 27,000 applications are pending for amnesty for illegal work, from changing windows to entire houses.

Italy has a long tradition of condoning this illegal construction, and the expectation that another amnesty will always arrive has prompted offenders to continue to build illegally, littering some of the country’s most pristine beaches with shabby and unsightly homes.

In 1985, then Prime Minister Bettino Craxi introduced a major amnesty for illegal buildings. Silvio Berlusconi, now a member of the ruling right-wing coalition, extended the amnesties in 1994 and 2003 when he was prime minister. He allowed residents who broke zoning rules, erected illegal homes, or added entire wings to pay a fine to return to regularization.

Then in 2018 Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the leader of a far-right and populist government, passed a tailor-made measure for Ischia – slipping into law to allegedly speed up the rebuilding of a major bridge that had collapsed in Genoa.

The policy appeared to be a political win-win, popular with voters but also raking in some extra cash for Italy’s coffers. But it has led Mr Conte and his increasingly left-wing and southern-based Five Star Movement to defend themselves with legalistic declarations.

“Political analysis should not revolve around the word ‘amnesty’ in this decree,” Barbara Floridia, a five-star senator, told House last week. “It doesn’t mean there was an amnesty. I am against the mafia, and this sentence contains the word “mafia”. Does that mean I’m pro-mafia?”

Ms Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party voted in favor of Mr Conte’s amnesty measure when she was in opposition. She has sought to avoid the amnesty issue, focusing on climate change and hydrogeological risks and earmarking €2 million ($2.1 million) in aid to the island.

Liberal opponents of Ms Meloni, who are also suspicious of Mr Conte’s rising popularity on the left, have seized on the issue to hurt them both.

“We must take an example from this event and never allow amnesties again,” said Enrico Letta, the secretary of the Democratic Party, which voted against the measure in 2018, last week. “Unfortunately, illegal building practices have played a role on Ischia.”

Bruno Molinaro, an Ischia attorney and construction amnesty expert, argued that most requests in the city were for minor changes and that it often takes homeowners decades to get a response.

Some have been pending for 37 years, he said. Municipalities tend to avoid an audit because as soon as they determine that a building is not compliant, they have to demolish it. That’s expensive for the city, and owners rarely repay demolition costs.

The destruction of so many houses, he added, would lead to a rebellion, in Ischia as elsewhere in the country.

“Everyone on Ischia and in Italy,” said Mr. Molinaro, “is trying to create a place in the sun for themselves and their families.”

But locals say the bureaucratic delays were compounded by fatal negligence on Mount Epomeo, which looms over the city.

The terraced and drainage systems of mountain forests were designed to channel rain safely from the mountain to the sea. But they weren’t cared for. Local hunters said the slopes were littered with branches, leaves, rocks and even household implements. In the last 10 years alone, millions of euros have been made available for maintenance. However, a lack of political will, administrative staff and expertise prevented the funds from being used.

“I remember workers routinely cleaning up the canal under the street here when I was a boy,” said Antonio Senese, 47, who runs the family’s car rental and hearse business, which brought nearly $400,000 worth of vehicles to the disaster lost.

“Farmers and authorities are cleaning up the mountains,” he said. “None of that exists anymore.”

On the night of the landslide, mud pounded Via Celario and Via Santa Barbara, the most damaged residential streets, washing away about 10 homes. Four children slept in it. The youngest, a 22-day-old baby, was found dead in his dead mother’s arms. Three other children were found dead next to their beds.

A young woman was still missing over the past week, even as rescuers sift through debris – mattresses, wooden drawers and a stroller wheel – and mud from a house.

“It was similar to an avalanche,” said Paolo Parlani, the fire department’s coordinator. “We think the missing are somewhere under this rubble, but they could also have been dragged down the hill by the force of the storm.”

He gently assured the family, who had been at the search site for days, that firefighters would do whatever they could to recover the young woman’s body. On Friday, they worked in the rain to keep that promise.

As locals relived last Saturday’s horrific events over and over again, the national blame game seemed a long way off.

“I heard a loud rumble in the distance and then the street lights went out,” said Teresa Silvestri, 76, Mr Senese’s mother.

“The pouring rain turned black and we saw the newsstand drive by and my new white panda,” she added, referring to her car, a Fiat. “I had never seen anything like it.”

Ms. Silvestri lives on the top floors, so her apartment, which is closer to Casamicciola’s waterfront, was spared. But mud filled the basement and first floor where the family has offices and garages. Even the concrete walls of the garden fell onto the street.

On Friday, authorities ordered her street and surrounding area to be evacuated, fearing rain forecasts for the weekend could trigger more landslides.

At the Antiche Terme Belliazzi, an old marble hotel, the thermal baths were already flooding, leaving a chandelier suspended above a high pile of rubble.

The “spa’s mud therapy is under the mud,” said Alessandro Venza, the owner. “I mean, the mud of the mountain.” Landslide tragedy shifts Italy’s focus to illegal construction

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