Flash floods swept through several towns Friday in hilly central Italy after hours of exceptionally heavy rain, leaving 10 people dead and at least four missing. Dozens of survivors scrambled onto rooftops or up into trees to await rescue.
Floods invaded garages and basements and knocked down doors. In one town, the powerful rush of water pushed a car onto a second-story balcony, while elsewhere parked vehicles were crumpled on top of each other in the streets. Some farm fields near the sea were meters (yards) under water.
“It wasn’t a water bomb, it was a tsunami,” Riccardo Pasqualini, the mayor of Barbara, told Italian state radio about the sudden downpour Thursday evening that devastated his town in the Marche region near the Adriatic Sea.
He said the overnight flooding left the town’s 1,300 residents without drinking water. A mother and her young daughter were missing after trying to escape the floods, Pasqualini told the Italian news agency ANSA. Elsewhere in town, a boy was swept away from the arms of his mother, who was rescued.
Premier Mario Draghi told a news conference in Rome that 10 people were dead and four were missing in the flash floods. He thanked rescuers “for their professionalism, dedication and courage.” Officials said some 50 people were treated at hospitals for injuries.
Draghi, who is serving in a caretaker role ahead of Italy’s Sept. 25 national election, planned to tour some devastated towns later Friday and his government announced 5 million euros (dollars) in aid to the region.
“It was an extreme event, more than an exceptional one,″ climatologist Massimiliano Fazzini told Italian state TV. He said, based on his calculations, the amount of rain that fell, concentrated over four hours that included an especially heavy 15-minute period, was the most in hundreds of years.
In a space of a few hours, the region was deluged with the amount of rainfall it usually receives in six months, state TV said. A summer of virtually no rain meant hillsides were unusually hard and dry, so the water ran faster down the slopes, increasing its impact.
The fire department tweeted that dozens of people trapped in cars or who had climbed up to rooftops or trees to escape rising floodwaters had been rescued. Police in the town of Sassoferrato, unable to reach a man trapped in a car, extending a long tree branch to him and pulled him to safety.
Helicopter crews rescued seven people in remote towns of the Apennine Mountains.
Hundreds of firefighters struggled Friday to remove toppled tree trunks and branches amid thick mud as they searched for people who could have been buried by debris. They waded through waist-high water in flooded streets, while others paddled in rubber dinghies to scoop up survivors.
In the town of Ostra, a father and his adult son were found dead in their building’s flooded garage where they had gone to try to get their car out, and another man who tried to remove his motorcycle from a garage also perished, state TV said. Elsewhere, a man was found dead in his car.
“As it (the flood) played out, it was far, far worse than forecast,” said Civil Protection chief Fabrizio Curcio. A bad weather watch had been issued on Thursday, but not at the highest level.
Hundreds of people fled or were evacuated from their homes until the premises could be checked for safety and mountains of mud cleared away.
Some of the worst flooding hit the town of Senigallia, where the River Misa overflowed its banks. Hamlets in the hills near the Renaissance tourist town of Urbino were also inundated when fast-moving rivers of water, mud and debris rushed through the streets.
In the town of Cantiano, people shoveled mud from stores and homes and an excavating machine was deployed to clear the town square.
“I was lucky because I live in a house up on a slope, so basically, the water didn’t reach the point of covering it,” said Mirco Santarelli, a Cantiano resident. “But all around here, with the people living in the valley area, it became a bowl (of water). It was panic.”
“You could see cars in the middle of the road that drifted away in the flood, debris everywhere, screams. It was chaos,” Santarelli told The Associated Press.