Her face and clothes splattered with mud, Isabella Puttilli, 74, fought back her grief as she sifted through the ruins of her home, among the dozens destroyed by catastrophic flooding that struck Italy’s central Marche region on Thursday night.
“I lost everything,” she said. “Food, furniture, I need to throw it all away.” But her emotions gave way as she entered the bedroom, where a photo hangs of her and her husband, who died seven years ago, on their wedding day. “He loved music, and had over 200 records,” she said. “All have been destroyed, really precious items that I’ll never get back.”
Puttilli is from Pianello di Ostra, a town of fewer than 800 residents, where five of the 11 people so far confirmed to have died in the floods lost their lives.
Among them were Giuseppe Tisba, 65, and his son Andrea, 25. The pair had been trying to move their car from an underground garage when the banks of the Misa river, which flows just a few hundred metres behind their apartment building, burst, sending a deluge of water into the garage and trapping them inside. Their neighbour, Diego Chiappetti, 51, was killed in the same way.
The town’s other victims were Ennaji Mohamed, 41, and Ferdinando Olivi, 80, whose grandson launched a desperate plea for help on Facebook as the lashing rain almost wiped Pianello di Ostra off the map within a couple of hours.
“Ferdinando used to have a driving school and he was my instructor,” said Pietro, who was standing outside his home as diggers cleared away mountains of debris and destroyed furniture. “The whole town is in mourning, everyone knows everyone here.”
It was the worst storm to affect Marche since 2014, with 420mm of rain falling within nine hours – a third of the region’s yearly average. The regional capital of Ancona and areas surrounding it were also badly affected, as was Senigallia, a town along the Adriatic coast.
The storms, widely described as a “tsunami” and “apocalypse”, turned streets into rivers, tipped cars upside down and felled trees. The two people still missing are eight-year-old Mattia Luconi, who got swept away from his mother’s arms as they tried to emerge from their car, and a 56-year-old woman.
But as Marche residents mourn the victims and come to terms with the consequences of the storms, anger is rising, most of it aimed at politicians as Italy heads towards general elections on 25 September.
“With all of this disaster, nobody will go and vote,” said Anna Rita Camerucci as she cleaned mud off important documents in her wrecked home. “I certainly won’t. People are very angry – there was no warning [of the intense storms] and no preparation.”
Italy is very vulnerable to climate change, with extreme weather events occurring more frequently. In August last year, temperatures in the country hit 48.8C, breaking the European record. A severe drought amid an intense, protracted heatwave this summer followed a mild winter with lower-than-average rain and snowfall. In early July, 11 people were killed when a huge mass of ice from a glacier on the north side of the Marmolada mountain in the Dolomites broke away, causing an avalanche. This summer, the seas surrounding Italy were five degrees warmer than average.
“It’s possible that the very warm sea fuelled this storm,” said Luca Mercalli, president of the Italian Meteorological Society.
However, until Friday, when Enrico Letta, the leader of the centre-left Democratic party (PD), asked why the fight against the climate crisis was not the first priority, the topic had been absent from the debate.
“They speak about it now as they just needed to share a couple of words in the middle of an emergency,” added Mercalli. “But they don’t think it’s an important problem. In fact, they see it as an obstacle for the economy.”
Mercalli was among the scientists who launched a petition, signed by over 120,000 people, in August urging political leaders to make the climate crisis a priority in their election programmes.
He said the only political force truly committed to the issue was, obviously, the tiny Greens party, which is part of a coalition with the PD. The PD, in turn, also has the environment high up on its government programme, while a coalition made up of the far-right Brothers of Italy, League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which is forecast to seize a landslide victory in the elections, gives the theme a token mention towards the end of its objectives.
Elly Schlein, the vice president of the Emilia Romagna region who is running as an independent candidate on the PD’s democratic and progressive list, argued that from her group’s side there was a “strong awareness” of the need to act immediately.
“What happened in Marche is terrible,” she said. “Again there are victims of the climate emergency and of extreme weather events that are more and more frequent and which have a hard impact on the population.”
Citing a report from Legambiente, Italy’s most prominent environment group, she said that over the past decade Italy had spent six times more on repairing the damage after extreme weather emergencies than what it had spent on prevention and mitigating the damage, for example through maintaining rivers.
“We need to invest in prevention, in terms of limiting the impact these extreme weather events have,” she said.
Her words, however, have little impact on Puttilli, who will now go to live with her daughter in a nearby town.
“Italy has had several disasters similar to this, and nothing ever gets done,” she said. “Enough now. I don’t believe politicians anymore and won’t be voting.”