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Italy's Cinque Terre, hit by flash flooding, digs out

The communities of Vernazza and Monterosso are in for a bleak, backbreaking winter of digging out and rebuilding, but they are determined to come back.
Image: Vernazza’s harbor
Floodwaters rush into Vernazza’s harbor after an intense rainstorm ripped through the region on Oct. 25, 2011.
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Thirty-two years ago, I met two American college girls while hitchhiking in Switzerland. They were studying in Florence, and I asked them their favorite place in Italy. They surprised me by naming a place I had never heard of before: the Cinque Terre. Curious, I headed south and discovered a humble string of five villages along Italy's Riviera coast with almost no tourism — and, it seemed, almost no contact with the modern world. I fell in love with this stretch of Mediterranean coastline and have returned almost every year since.

On Oct. 25 of this year, a freakishly intense rainstorm ripped through the region and inflicted serious damage on the Cinque Terre towns of Monterosso and Vernazza. Torrents of water rampaged from the surrounding mountains into town, carrying with it tons of mud and debris. Massive flooding destroyed homes and businesses, and landslides filled the streets with rocks, dirt, and debris up to 12 feet deep. Entire ground floors were buried.

Photos and videos of the devastation show storefronts ripped off and fishing boats crumbled on rocks. The images of spindly, pastel Vernazza buried in rubble were especially difficult to look at. I've been there so many times that I actually think of it as a person. I believe I know more people in Vernazza than in all of Spain. After the disaster, the town looked like a crime scene. I felt as if I'd lost a friend — as if nature had murdered someone I loved.

For some, it did. At least six people died in the flash floods, and several are still missing. In one heartbreaking account on the Save Vernazza website, Valentino Giannoni recalls the tense hours in his father's gelato shop as he did everything he could to keep his wife and 3-year-old son above the rising tide. They survived — but Valentino's father was swept away while trying to keep the flood from consuming his family.

One of my staff members was also in Vernazza at the time. She and her family were eating pesto pasta when water started seeping into the restaurant. As the water level rose, everyone migrated into another room and took refuge on tabletops while several people held their bodies against the door to try to keep the water from raging in.

Danger doubled
As the group waited for the storm to subside, they started to smell gas. The floodwaters had ripped the restaurant's stove from the wall, leaving an exposed gas connection. As she recounted, they didn't know if they were going to drown or die in an explosion.

After more than two hours, the floodwaters receded momentarily (likely slowed by a pile-up of jumbled, overturned cars in the ravine), allowing everyone in the restaurant to escape to higher ground. Shortly thereafter, the rain increased, and the river rose even higher, pushing everything in its path into the sea. My staff member and her family ended up at Al Castello restaurant, where the owners provided food for about 100 tourists and townspeople. Later that evening, the owners of the Gianni Franzi hotel took them in; they were evacuated by boat the next morning.

Emergency responders have been working nonstop since the disaster and have made a lot of progress clearing the streets. I've heard from many friends in the region. The communities of Vernazza and Monterosso are in for a bleak, backbreaking winter of digging out and rebuilding, but they are determined to come back. One hotelier in Monterosso has promised to fix the damage in time to welcome our first tour group next year, in March.

I'll be back too. One of my favorite rituals in Vernazza is to walk the main drag at midnight, from top to bottom. In ancient times, a stream rushed down the middle of this street. At some point, generations ago, the stream was put under the pavement. But it still flows, draining water from the terraced vineyards that surround the town on three sides. At one point, you can actually hear the soft sounds of water flowing beneath the road, from vineyards to the sea. It's strange to imagine that within the course of a few hours, this underground rivulet turned into a roaring river that claimed lives.

When people ask me what they can do to help, I tell them to keep the Cinque Terre in their travel dreams. Like I do almost every year, I'll be traveling here next spring to do some filming and update my guidebook. Witnessing the damage — and the progress — firsthand will be both inspirational and bittersweet. Most of all, I look forward to taking that midnight stroll, stream trickling underneath my feet, just like I have for the past 30 years.

( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at , or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)