Europe / Italy

Destination: Disaster

“I no longer feel my feet but I run toward the piazza with the news that my father has been sucked away by the torrent, hoping that somehow someone had saved him. “

–Valentino Giannoni, Son of the owner of “Porto Dody Gelateria Artiginale” Pino Giannoni, who died during the flood on October 25, 2011

On the morning of October 25, 2011, fast moving “scirocco” clouds ominously painted across the sky. Winds picked up and rain quickly followed. The strong winds and heavy rain made walking down the streets of Vernazza difficult. Visitors to Vernazza ducked into the closest restaurants to stay dry.  Tables and chairs outside the restaurants started to slide slowly downhill. Soon, residents witnessed rapidly rising water levels in the canal where only once before had they seen water rush to the canal’s full capacity.  Rain continued to poor down and town lost electricity. Water level quickly rose inside store along the main street.  In a matter of minutes, the water level rose from a few centimeters to half a meter inside this shops and restaurants. Soon after, rocks and debris thundered down from the hilltops, carrying with them small trucks, trash bins, vans and vines. Whirlpools of water mixed with debris blocked the exit to many of these small establishments and travelers and townspeople were trapped inside. The town’s five hundred gallon propane tank was ripped off the hillside while persistently spewing gas. Joanne, an American tourist from St. Louis recalls,

“ Gas…same in Italian as English…you could smell it everywhere…The gas smell is strong everywhere and people are really panicking-crying, yelling.”

Water level in these small stores at this point reached the ceiling and some cantinas started to collapse. The owner of the popular Blue Marlin bar broke the wall in the back of his restaurant to provide a safe escape for his customers up an abandoned set of stairs. Others sought refuge in the train station’s gift shop located at the entrance to the town on higher grounds. [1] Visitors who were where trapped inside waterfront restaurants evacuated to the Al Castello restaurant, where centuries before, defended Vernazzis from pirate raids.

Around midafternoon, citizens and tourists were advised to gather in the City Hall because the situation was anticipated to escalade.  The second and strongest wave of landslides crashed into Vernazza soon after the advisory and buried the town under more than 13 feet of mud and debris.  Some visitors were unable to reach the City Hall but found protection instead in the homes of Vernazzis. An American couple from Spokane, Washington who were trapped in their host family’s home later wrote,

 “By then the exterior hallway door had given way; the windows in the room beside us had broken open; we expected our room’s water level would soon be level with the screaming torrent outside. Several times the water receded, two or three feet, only to rush in again with increased force. We prayed together, talked about what our lives together had meant, and sent signals with our LED flashlight. It was pitch black, except for an ever-so-important floodlight, still shining intermittently from a building across the road.”

Some other visitors were hiking along the steep trails between the coastal villages of Cinque Terre. One solo hiker from Canada was lost on the trail between Cornigia and Vernazza she later describe that as she frantically ran towards Vernazza she pleaded,

“Please God, don’t let there be a mudslide. My family will never know where to look for me”

Around midnight, the torrential storm was reduced to a steady rain and the search and rescue process began. With daylight, helicopters flew in with ropes to aid local men and Search Rescue technicians (SARs). Vernazza had neither electricity nor potable water. Trains and boats stopped operating and the hiking trails leading to and from Vernazza were completely blocked.

By the second afternoon, the remaining tourists were evacuated south to the city of La Spezia.  The bodies of three residents of Vernazza were recovered weeks later on the French coast. Over 100 landslides that day caused Vernazza to lose three of its residents and suffer over 100 million Euros worth of damages to public and private properties. Residents watched hopelessly their houses crumbled and their cars swepted in to the muddle sea. To exacerbate this catastrophe, some of the residents’ insurance policies did not over damages from natural disasters. Those fortunately enough to have houses in higher grounds opened them to displaced tourists. Senior members of the community reflected that the damages of the 2011 disaster surpassed what they had seen during World War II when Vernazza came under Nazi occupation.

[1] This post is the prologue to my thesis on tourist site vulnerability.The chapter was written based on personal memories documented on Please visit to find out how you can help with the rebuild process.


One thought on “Destination: Disaster

  1. Hi Huan! I am going to be working for Save Vernazza this summer, I know you worked there last summer and would love to talk to you about it, maybe you can suggest something I can work on or give me a heads up about some projects/ideas. I friended you on Facebook so please feel free to message me there! — Rachel Epstein

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