At least 21 dead, 30 missing in Sicily floods

The death toll from severe flooding and landslides on Thursday in north-eastern Sicily rose to 21, with at least 30 people still missing. Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, who is expected to visit Sicily, said he feared the death toll would double.


AFP - Anger grew Saturday as the death toll rose to 21 after torrential rains in Sicily, with some 30 still missing.

"Another victim has been found at Scaletta Zanclea, bringing the number of deaths to 21", civil defence chief Guido Bertolaso said in nearby Messina.

Meanwhile Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had called off a visit to the disaster area on Saturday, would fly over in a helicopter on Sunday to see the scale of the damage, Bertalaso said.

Berlusconi had earlier decided not to go to the scene, saying he did not want to get in the way of the rescue efforts.

Some 250 millimetres (10 inches) of rain fell on northeastern Sicily in the space of a few hours on Thursday, triggering mudslides that collapsed buildings, carried off cars and cut off roads throughout the region.

Rescue workers and firemen, backed by sniffer dogs and some 200 volunteers resumed searching for survivors in the rubble of buildings Saturday, while helicopters flew in food for local inhabitants, regional civil defence spokesman Giampiero Gliubizzi said.

In Scaletta Zanclea, south of the port city of Messina on the northeastern tip of the island, mechanical diggers were clearing four or five metres (12-15 feet) of mud.

Witnesses said that in some towns such as Molino, the mud was up to seven metres deep.

Survivors were being kept away from the scene, and many seemed deprived of everything, including water supplies, although the rain still fell.

Several hundred people suffered some form of injury, and those needing hospital treatment had to be ferried aboard dinghies because the roads were impassable, while the seriously hurt were evacuated by helicopter.

Mudslides included one that stretched over 3.5 kilometres (two miles), cutting off communications and sweeping away dozens of cars between Messina and several coastal towns south of the city.

The Sicilian capital Palermo in the northwest was also affected, with motorists stranded in their cars and hospital emergency services flooded.

Some 400 people had to be evacuated and the government has declared a state of emergency in the region.

Officials, including President Giorgio Napolitano, hit out at the inadequate measures taken against natural disasters and the flouting of regulations on building in danger zones, saying the tragedy was totally predictable.

Napolitano called for investment in "a serious security plan, instead of monumental works," in reference to the 6.1 billion euro (8.5 billion dollar) bridge across the Straits of Messina due to start building next year.

Massimo Veltri, head of the Italian hydraulic engineering society, said that "in Italy people build anywhere, without regard for European standards."

"We must have a special plan for land protection and management, because rain, even intense, should not be causing dozens of victims in a short time," he added, quoted by the ANSA news agency.

According to the civil and environmental protection agency, 70 percent of Italian communities are threatened by water damage, enhanced by abuses, deforestation and unplanned building.

"Once more Italians are paying a high price for negligence and abuses in the building industry which has covered large areas of the country with concrete in an uncontrolled manner, especially in the south," an official of the opposition Democratic Party said.

The press also weighed in Saturday, with Corriere della Sera publishing a catalogue of environmental disasters caused by irresponsible actions.

"It rains in the autumn, sometimes a lot," La Stampa observed. "If you build in a river bed, your house will very probably be swept away."

La Repubblica recalled that the area had been hit by similar mudslides in October 2007, adding, "Two years later, nothing has been done."

"The area is already very fragile, and we have seen total negligence, especially with the lack of drainage," Gian Vito Graziano, president of the regional association of geologists, said earlier.

Environmentalist Giulia Maria Mozzoni Crespi said: "Everything is down to negligence and a lack of concern for the environment."

Sicilian politicians "don't think about the landscape because they want to help their friends who want to build," said Mozzoni Crespi, head of the Italian Fund for the Environment.

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