When floods hit the northern Italian city of Lugo last week, overflowing a local waterway and sending water gushing into streets and surrounding fields, Irinel Lungu, 45, retreated with his wife and toddler to the second floor in their homes.
As emergency workers navigated submerged streets in dinghies to deliver infant formula and rescue elderly people from their homes, the couple watched in the cold as the water rose higher and higher.
Downstairs, “the water was up to my chest,” he said Saturday, adding, “We had nowhere to go.”
Relief has yet to come to parts of Lugo and other northern Italian cities that were inundated by floods that killed 14 people and left thousands homeless. Swollen rivers and canals have submerged large parts of the countryside. Hundreds of dangerous landslides have paralyzed large parts of the area. And some inland towns in the mountains are completely isolated and can basically only be reached by helicopter.
On Saturday, as the rain fell again, residents around the ancient city of Ravenna – once the capital of the Byzantine Empire – faced the deluge as receding waters in some of the hardest-hit towns revealed warped and water-soaked furniture stacked next to broken kitchen appliances. Soaked sofas sank into the mud. Bottles of olive oil and preserves, covered in mud, lined the streets. A car, lifted by the rushing water, teetered precariously on a garden fence.
The floods have changed tens of thousands of lives in the region, Emilia-Romagna, as exceptional weather in some areas brought about half of the typical annual rainfall in 36 hours. And experts say it may no longer be so exceptional.
Extreme weather events have become more common in Europe, from violent storms and raging floods which killed dozens in Germany two years ago scorching temperatures that set records in a normally temperate UK last July. Italy has suffered its own fair share of extreme events, caught between periods of extreme drought that weaken cities, paralyze agriculture and dry up the country’s breadbasket, and then torrential rains and floods like the last week.
The extremes create a brutal cycle in which mountain slopes stripped of trees by summer wildfires, and lands parched by drought, fail to absorb rainfall — in this case, biblical amounts of it. The pattern may leave millions of Italians surrounded by water now, but in summer thirsty for a drop.
Last summer, the land was so dry “you could see cracks,” Roberto Zanardi, 59, who lives in the Lugo area, said with exasperation as he pointed to submerged pear and persimmon groves around him on Saturday. “Look at them now.”
Italy’s leaders are trying to come to terms with what scientists say is the new normal for climate change, but some lawmakers are questioning whether the country missed opportunities to better prepare for the extreme flooding many saw coming and to protect the country with man-made basins or other solutions.
“Let’s get it into our heads that we live in an area at risk and that the process of tropicalization of the climate has also reached Italy,” said Nello Musumeci, the country’s civil protection minister, in an interview last week with La Stampa, a newspaper based in Turin in northern Italy.
“In the agendas of all governments over the last 80 years, the fragility of our territory has never been a truly priority issue,” he added. “The question to ask is not whether a catastrophic event like Tuesday’s will happen again, but when and where it will happen.”
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced on Saturday that she would cut short her trip to Japan, where she has been part of the seven-person group, so she could visit the flooded areas on Sunday and lead the emergency response.
“Honestly, I cannot stay so far away from Italy at such a difficult time,” she told a news conference. “My conscience demands that I return.”
The flooding was caused by what experts described as a perfect storm of bad weather, already saturated soil from storms earlier in the month and high seas.
Heavy rainstorms covered a large area of Emilia-Romagna for a considerable time, pushed by fronts and blocked by the Apennines.
A storm in the nearby Adriatic Sea trapped the water on the low-lying plains.
Rivers, streams and canals overflowed and in some cases eroded their banks, in an area that is one of Italy is most vulnerable for flooding. Soil parched from months of drought struggled to absorb that water.
On Saturday, along the banks of the Santerno River in Emilia-Romagna, workers drove a crane to demolish a two-story building after water broke through the river’s 33-foot-high embankment, engulfing the structure and stripping it of its facade, which had landed in a field across over the road. It was left lying next to several cars and patches of torn up and washed away asphalt.
Andrea Burattoni, a 48-year-old farmer who lives on the street, watched as the crane hit the walls, gradually revealing the remains of what was once a home. Bed frames, kitchen furniture and a cabinet with sports trophies fell to the ground. The owner, an elderly resident, had been evacuated by his family when the water rose.
But Mr. Burattoni and his family stayed, despite the fear they felt as the water swelled through the fields.
“The roar was deafening, like the earthquake,” he said, referring to the weather that ravaged the region in 2012. On Saturday, he surveyed his fields where he grew peaches alongside vineyards, buried under muddy brown water. “The roots don’t breathe – it’s like they’re covered in a plastic sheet,” he said. “It will take weeks for the water to drain, but the season is over.”
Experts say much of the world can also expect more unusual and severe storms as the world warms, increasing the need for measures to protect communities.
Barbara Lastoria, a water engineer at the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research in Rome, said the debates about water management that arose in the past week because of the floods meant little if the larger and existential issue of climate change was not addressed.
“The rising temperatures lead to the development of extreme phenomena such as droughts and floods – they are two sides of the same coin,” she said. “Rising temperature is like gasoline in the engine of extreme phenomena: It must be dealt with first.”
For some, the flood was a reason for relocation.
Claudio Dosi, 46, a welder in Sant’Agata sul Santerno, said he considered moving away after his parents were evacuated to a local sports center when their home filled with water. “I’m not sure we have a future here,” he said.
Others did not want to budge.
Lillia Osti, 77, said she had lived in the same home, surrounded by wheat and pear fields northwest of Lugo, for 60 years. Flooding was not uncommon in the low-lying area, she said, although the water had never before flooded “our ground floor on the furniture.”
Around her, family members removed rain-soaked doors so they could dry. “This is not normal, but as long as we live, we will rebuild,” she said.