Italy’s Worst Disasters

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ross-merrill - August 29, 2016

The 6.2 earthquake that struck central Italy last week killed at least 250 people and destroyed much of two towns and two villages. The cost to rebuild could be in the billions of dollars.

Rome is called the Eternal City, and Italy's history goes back thousands of years. During that time, all kinds of weird disasters have befallen the country. I dug through the archives to find some of biggest and strangest. Caveat viator.

Stura Valley Avalanche - 1775

In the Stura Valley, southwest of Piedmont, three people set a record for most days survived buried in an avalanche. A woman, her sister-in-law, her 13-year-old daughter, and her six-year-old son were in the stables behind their house when 50 feet of snow crashed down on them. Everyone thought they perished in the disaster, so no rescue was attempted. 

But the family was actually in an air pocket 12 feet long, eight feet wide, and five feet high. Even more lucky, some of the stable animals were with them, providing goat's milk for the -- believe it or not -- 37 days of imprisonment. Less lucky: As the animals died and their corpses rotted, the smell became horrible.

Anyway, when the snow thawed, the three women and two of the goats were found alive; only the boy had died. A virtual miracle after more than a month buried in the snow.

Great Fire of Rome - 64 

The expression "Nero fiddled while Rome burned" comes from this fire that raged for six days. Three of the city's 14 districts were destroyed and only four were undamaged. Hundreds of Romans died and thousands were left homeless.

The fire broke out on a windy night in an area of shops and quickly spread through the crowded streets. By some accounts, Nero just watched the fire (and maybe even gave orders to start it), but most likely he was out of town. He quickly returned and organized firefighting and relief efforts. But did Nero benefit from the destruction? The fire did damage his own palace...yetit also cleared away an area where he wanted to build a new one.

When people started to blame Nero, he announced that Christians were the culprits, and began the first official persecution of the new religion. It wouldn't be the last. Amidst all the accusations, what gets lost is the possibility that the fire was simply a tragic accident.

The Vajont Dam Disaster - 1963

The builders of the Vajont Dam ignored three different reports warning that the mountain on one side of the man-made lake would erode or collapse. They also ignored the actual landslides and mini-earthquakes that dropped dirt and rocks into the reservoir, changing the water level. When journalists reported on the warning signs, the company sued them.

Guess what? On October 9, 1963, a massive landslide of earth, rock, and even entire trees tumbled into the reservoir. The resulting wave blasted into the villages along the lakefront. But then the water spilled over the dam and into the valley below, creating a gigantic flood that obliterated the villages of Pirago, Rivalta, Longarone, Villanova, and Faè. Around 2,000 people were killed. The rest lost of everything.

There were lawsuits, but most weren't resolved and the people in charge received light sentences. Victims were compensated but even that process drew controversy. The dam withstood the disaster -- preventing even worse loss of life -- and still stands today, but it's no longer used.

Arno River Flood - 1966

This river divides Florence in half. Early in the morning of November 4, heavy rains caused nearby dams to discharge huge amounts of water. Later, officials feared that dams would burst, so they discharged even more. The result was a mass of water that reached as high as 22 feet. Army barracks were flooded, emergency hospital generators were flooded, and the water ruptured heating oil tanks, turning the deluge into a worse health hazard. 101 people died.

The good news was that November 4 was a holiday -- the anniversary of the end of World War One -- so many residents were out of town on vacation. The bad news was that many museums, galleries, and libraries were locked, which prevented officials from saving books and artworks. Several million books and manuscripts were damaged, as well as 14,000 paintings, sculptures, and other works of art. It was a huge blow to a cultural center like Florence.

Eruption of Vesuvius - 79

This was perhaps the most spectacular natural disaster in European history. Starting on August 24, and lasting 24 hours, the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius killed thousands and wiped Pompeii and surrounding towns off the map. The cloud of smoke from the cone rose 12 miles high. Pumice and ash raced down the mountain at 70 miles per hour. The heat reached 1,300 degrees.

Flaming rocks rained down on people trying to escape and ships arriving to rescue them. Poisonous sulfur gas killed others, including Plinty the Elder, who was organizing the rescue. Some people died of thermal shock as the heat soared to 200 degrees above the temperature of fire itself.

16 feet of volcanic ash covered the area, preserving everything below it from air and moisture. By pouring plaster into the spaces left by the bodies, archaeologists created statues of Pompeii's residents at the moment of their death. Visiting the site today can be a fascinating, creepy experience.

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  • Will says:

    I thought for sure this was going to be a post about Snooki

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