February 22, 2010

Experts Warn Italians Of Possible New Landslide Threats

Experts fear that Italy may be facing more landslide threats in populated areas after thousands were forced to evacuate their homes in two southern towns earlier this month.

Torrential rains in southern Italy were to blame for the landslides that left thousands of people homeless in the towns of Maierato in Calabria and San Fratello in Sicily. Experts say the density of populations in at-risk areas and the lack of awareness for geological risks both contribute to the recurring tragedies.

Inhabitants of the two towns waited to return home early Friday, but part of Italy's main southern highway remained closed because of landslide risk.

Geologist Leonello Serva told AFP that landslides will always affect Italy. "What is not acceptable for a wealthy country is to have a landslide blocking a highway, hitting a bridge or a hospital."

"Because of the extraordinary rainfalls, the geological fragility of the land, and because for 40, 50, 100 years people have built houses on land that is subject to landslides," Sicily Governor Raffaele Lombardo reported on Italian television.

About five percent of Italy's regions are at the highest risk for landslides, according to the ISPRA, a public research institute for monitoring areas at risk. 470,000 landslides have been recorded by the group in the last 50 years.

Italy's landscape is generally "young in geological terms," and landslides "can be expected anywhere there is a slope," said Serva, who heads ISPRA's land protection section. But the southern regions of Italy are the most likely areas for them to occur, he said.

Dozens of people died last October during a mudslide that struck near the city of Messina in Sicily. A 1998 mudslide killed 160 people when 70 million cubic feet of mud and debris wiped out nearly 200 homes in the town of Sarno.

The situation is worsened by lack of awareness of land-use regulations, Francesco Dramis, a professor of geomorphology at Roma 3 University, told AFP. He urged that people need to be educated on correct usages of the land.

Serva noted that many safe practices are overlooked or forgotten, such as building and vegetation maintenance, which leads to much worse geological decay.

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