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Friday, 20 October, 2000, 21:01 GMT 22:01 UK
Italy counts cost of flood
Some areas of the Po valley have been flooded deliberately
Some areas have been flooded deliberately to protect others
By David Willey in Rome

The river Po, Italy's longest river, rises at an Alpine spring near Turin, rushes down a mountain torrent, and after flowing slugglishly for 400 miles (640km) through the fertile plain of Lombardy, normally flows muddily and serenely into the Adriatic Sea South of Venice.

This week, however, the bells of thousands of churches scattered along the Po river valley tolled by day and night to warn inhabitants of approaching disaster.

It's a custom dating back more than 1,000 years.

Bell towers along the Po have always warned of invasions, fires, births and deaths of kings, air-raids - and floods.

Cleanup promised

This week, the banks of the Po have been breached in innumerable places by a surging wall of water which for six consecutive days has alarmed millions of people and forced tens of thousands out of their homes.

Woman digging mud
The cleanup is already beginning in some areas
President Ciampi toured the disaster area near Turin and promised those who had suffered that they would not be forgotten.

But memories of past natural disasters - floods, earthquakes, the collapse of dams, and mudslides - where relief work began late and was inadequate, left many Italians asking themselves just how quickly life will return to normal in the industrial and agricultural heartland of Italy.

Interior Minister Enzo Bianco announced Friday that the worst of the surging flood tide should have reached the sea by Sunday night and that the big cleanup of mud-strewn homes, factories and schools can now begin in earnest.

Damage bill

The cost of the flood disaster is heavy.

Twenty-five people are dead. Four are still missing believed drowned.

Four thousand people have lost their homes altogether, and 40,000 had to be moved temporarily to safety as the flood made its way to the sea.

Damage to homes, agriciulture, farms, factories, roads and railway lines, is now reckoned in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Immediate emergency payments of $18,000 are being made to every family which lost their home. More emergency funds are on their way.

The main railway bridge connecting central Italy to Venice became a critical factor on Thursday and Friday.

Last respects

Train services were suspended while railway engineers managed to winch up the central part of the drawbridge to prevent the flood waters meeting a powerful barrier. This could have caused even further devastation in the nearby countryside.

Rail bridges have been threatened
Rail bridges have come under threat
A thousand people packed the cathedral in Aosta in the Alps on Friday to pay their last respects to the first six victims of the flood, who were swept away from a small Alpine village to their deaths during last weekend's torrential rains.

In the lower Po valley a small army of thousands of firemen, police, soldiers, Red Cross workers, and ordinary volunteers is still working around the clock to shore up dykes and control the flood waters where possible.

Some new breaches were actually created on purpose in order to spread the surging water over a wider area and prevent the flooding of historic towns such as Pavia and Cremona.

Protection required

Italy's Environment Minister, Willer Bordon was away on a visit to China this week.

On his return he will be bombarded by angry Italians who want to know why successive governments in Rome have never devised a policy that works to deal with the complex hydrology of the Po river valley and prevent foreseen disasters like that which ocurred this week.

Lack of building controls and over-building along river banks mean that this week's events could well be repeated in years to come unless some radical countermeasures are taken to protect the environment and the people of the Po river valley.

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See also:

17 Oct 00 | Business
Farms hit worst by Italy's flooding
17 Oct 00 | Europe
In pictures: Italy battles floods
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