What to do after a flood

Firefighters check the inside of a garage from which smoke is coming out, in Castel Bolognese (Valentina Lovato/Il Post)

Organize the many volunteers who have come to help, shovel water and mud, empty houses and cellars and think about the mountains of waste

by Valerio Clari, photos and videos by Valentina Lovato

The necessary instructions are communicated in no more than a few minutes, then a shovel, a spade, a mop is expected and the group leaves. In Castel Bolognese, in the province of Ravenna, one of the municipalities of Romagna overwhelmed by water and mud, the volunteer collection center is in front of the sports arena. In other cities, such as Cesena, Forlì or Faenza, there are other centers used for sorting, but the frequency with which groups of volunteers show up to lend a hand is the same.

Saturday was a day full of mud and heaps of things piled up outside the houses, transformed into a single block of the same brown color and suddenly turned into waste. Inside those piles there is everything: antique furniture, soaked books, washing machines, prams, entire kitchens, dismembered wardrobes, goods that were ready to be sold.

Volunteers empty a house in the center (Valentina Lovato/Il Post)

In recent days, local administrations, the fire brigade and the Civil Protection have taken care of getting people and animals to safety. Then to restore, as far as possible, electricity, drinking water and telephone lines. In lower Romagna that phase has not yet passed, while elsewhere another one has begun in which people are dedicated to emptying houses, shops and streets of water, mud and things that have become unusable. Mud and rubbish are piling up outside the houses and at some point it will have to be removed from there as well.

It is a job that requires many hands, suitable means and above all a precise organization.

A chain of volunteers (Valentina Lovato/Il Post)

Luca Della Godenza is the mayor of Castel Bolognese, a town with almost 10,000 inhabitants. At 34, he is almost in his fourth year of mandate: «On 2 May, after the first flood, we had about 65 displaced families, which seemed to me a lot at the time. In three days, with 17-20 teams a day and about ninety people, we freed the houses from the mud. Now it’s another championship: that of twenty days ago, which at the time seemed like a flood that happens once every hundred years, was actually a dress rehearsal». Della Godenza says that that experience served at least to be more prepared for this one and understand more quickly what needs to be done during an emergency.

Since the first red alert of the Civil Protection has arrived, a rigid protocol has been followed which provides for various recommendations, from communications to be given to citizens to the creation of a chain of command to manage the emergency. Difficult decisions have to be made, such as displacing a part of the inhabitants by anticipating the moment when it is clear that it is necessary, because doing it later would be too late. Mayors have to do all this themselves.

Then there are a series of other things, smaller but still important, to take care of: for example contacting the sewer managers, the purge workers, coordinating the interventions of the Civil Protection, getting the means to move the machines. And then distribute radiolines to those in charge of the operations, organize shelters for the displaced, find and define the places where food, cots and blankets will be stored, organize a pharmacy service.

A fire brigade pump used to empty a cellar (Valentina Lovato/Il Post)

Once the emergency phase has passed, in which firefighters, Army and Civil Protection are centrally located, comes that of cleaning and securing, in which we try to recover the homes in order to bring at least one part of the displaced.

It is the moment in which the volunteers become fundamental. Riccardo Monte in Castel Bolognese takes care of their coordination: «Many more volunteers have arrived than we could have expected, with a great response. And therefore they must be organized to work in a logical way: they must be addressed, perhaps in the future they will also be diverted to other centres”.

Football and basketball teams have arrived, a group of one hundred students from Bologna, many people from neighboring municipalities less affected by the emergency: some come to help friends and acquaintances, and have a specific destination, others show up at the assembly points.

A toll-free number was set up in Cesena first, then on the initiative of Fabio Zaffagnini, who had organized events in the city in a very different climate such as the Rockin’1000an online registration service was born, which is called “SOS volunteers” and to which various municipalities in the region have adhered. It is used to manage volunteers in an organic and efficient way, distributing them where they are needed most and in the places closest to the cities in which they live.

The streets of the center crowded with volunteers, citizens, means of transport and rescue (Valentina Lovato/Il Post)

Once on site, the volunteers are organized into teams, reports are collected and the necessary forces are sent to the site. Usually we proceed by zones, giving priority to those most affected. Within these, interventions are carried out first on the houses, then on the commercial establishments, finally in the cellars and garages. Once an area has been cleaned up, the range of action can be expanded: in Castel Bolognese around 2,500 of the 3,600 houses in the residential districts suffered damage, the water poured violently through the streets, overwhelming everything and reaching up to over one meter high.

The work of the volunteers mostly consists in shoveling the mud and transferring unusable things outside, but it must be done with a certain method, which is indicated in the “briefings” a couple of minutes before departure. The recommendations are not to throw the mud down the drains, which risks blocking the pipes, but to collect it in mounds, even on public parks. The waste must be moved outside the houses, on the street, and the piles must not occupy more space than a parked car, to allow the vehicles of the fire brigade to pass anyway. If possible, they shouldn’t be placed near plants or low walls: the trucks that take them away have metal arms called “spiders” with which they lift them, and they shouldn’t risk taking away other objects or structures nearby.

The heaps of objects to throw away piled up outside the houses (Valentina Lovato/Il Post)

Volunteers are also advised to enter homes only after introducing themselves to the owners and not to venture into dark or potentially unsafe basements. Above all, the firefighters think of the cellars, who use dewatering pumps, but in the affected centers companies that normally deal with purging, equipped with useful means and machinery, have also come to lend a hand.

These operations carried out simultaneously in hundreds of homes cause difficulties for the water supply, which suffers drops in pressure, and for the electricity supply: even days after the flood, there may be a temporary lack of running water or electricity.

The volume of waste produced is enormous, it is as if hundreds of cellars were emptied at the same time, plus dozens of houses on the ground floor, because in small towns single-family villas and small houses are the majority. It will take days to dispose of them all. Meanwhile they are gathered in temporary points forming small mountains.

The waste collection point of the city (Valentina Lovato/Il Post)

Many buildings, especially older ones, will then have to pass a structural check, because the force of the water or prolonged humidity could have compromised their stability. There have been some collapses, even days after the floods.

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2023-05-21 10:56:25

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