A bulldozer paused and everything went silent in the night as a firefighter, spotting a pink sweater in a generator’s light, reached into the mud-caked debris. This time, it was only a sweater.
Torrential rains last weekend sent a powerful landslide plowing through Casamicciola Terme, a port town on the southern Italian island of Ischia, killing 12 residents — including a newborn baby and two small children — and washing away houses and burying streets. This past week, rescue workers and volunteers continued to dig for survivors and to unearth the town from thick rivers of mud.
But as some evacuees came back to search for their belongings, many felt an unwelcome scrutiny from a nation that was asking whether the island’s abundance of illegally constructed houses had increased the vulnerability of a town that sits in a geologically fragile zone across the bay from Naples.
Authorities have not clarified which buildings, if any, may have been illegally built. But a series of amnesties over decades from various Italian governments may have rendered most of them legal in any case. That has set off hand-wringing among politicians, including the far-right party of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and a bitter round of finger pointing over who was to blame.
“We have no zoning plan since the 1960s,” Vincenzo Capuano, 64, a town resident, said as friends emptied his basement of mud one bucket at a time. “Politicians have never decided where residents can build here. There is no way to build legally.”
Illegal construction has blighted Italy’s coastlines, hilly landscapes and cities, but the practice is especially endemic in the poorer southern regions, including Campania. On Ischia, an island of 63,000 famous for its thermal baths, 27,000 requests for amnesty on illegal works are pending, from altered windows to entire homes.
Italy has a long history of condoning these illegal constructions, and the anticipation that another amnesty will always arrive has prompted offenders to keep building illegally, marring some of the country’s most pristine beaches with shoddy, and unsightly, homes.
On the night of the landslide, mud pounded Via Celario and Via Santa Barbara, the most damaged residential streets, washing away about 10 homes. Within them, four children slept. The youngest, a 22-day-old infant, was found dead in his dead mother’s arms.