Almost a month and a half after the floods that hit the regions of the Marche and Emilia-Romagna (Italy), here is the story of the personal experience of Maria Chiara Campodoni, a married focolarina, a teacher and a former municipal councillor of the Municipality of Faenza, who was a victim of this disaster.

The flood that hit the Marche and Emilia-Romagna (Italy) about a month and a half ago caused the loss of 15 lives, thousands of displaced people and the flooding of 23 rivers. To date, flooding has occurred in about 100 municipal regions. Numerous landslides have affected small producers, tens of square kilometres of agricultural land and farms have been destroyed by the power of water, along with bridges and roads. The contributions collected by the Emergency Coordination Committee of the Focolare movement, AMU and AFN have reached 182,000 euros.

In collaboration with APS Emilia-Romagna, a social welfare association, a local emergency committee was set up to identify areas of priority intervention which include: Cesena, Sarsina, Faenza, Castel Bolognese and Ravenna.

The needs of the affected populations were assessed, especially through personal contacts and through the compilation of forms in which each person declared the damage suffered and the request for assistance.

Maria Chiara Campodoni, a married focolarina, teacher, Councillor for Sport from 2010-2015 and President of the Municipal Council of Faenza 2015-2020, was severely affected. She told us about the misfortune of this experience but also expressed her hope for the future.

Maria Chiara, what happened to you and your family?

There were two floods in Faenza. On 2nd May, the water came into our house for the first time, to a depth of 30 cms. It was in the afternoon, in daylight. My son and I were in the house. At first it was like an adventure, my husband had gone to collect the other two children from sports activities. That night we decided that they should not come home because there was much more water outside than inside and we only have windows and doors on the ground floor. Getting them back into the house would have meant letting a lot more water in. So they went to sleep with their grandparents and the two of us tried to take some things upstairs, we ate something in the bedroom and went to bed. Even the firefighters who had passed by had reassured us, telling us that the situation would not get any worse. The next day the water level between inside and outside was the same and then we decided to leave the house. A fortnight later the authorities started advising people to evacuate the ground floors because it was going to happen again. The whole city went on alert and realized that it had to get organized because something even more serious was going to happen.

And what happened the second time?

The second flood, the one from which we had to escape, came in the evening. Around 8.30 pm, the river bank just above our house collapsed. Until that moment, since we obtained a pump for inside the house, we hadn’t gone outside convinced that we could control the flow with the pumps and keep the water level down also with the help of sandbags. But within 20 minutes the water had reached the first floor, up to 3 metres in a very short time and suddenly we found ourselves trapped. We called the rescuers who immediately responded saying that they would arrive, but in the meantime, that afternoon, the Savio River in Cesena had also flooded, so the civil protection workers and the firefighters, who until the day before were all in Faenza, were already spread out in the various areas. Moreover, in my street the current was so strong that the motor vehicles only managed to get in at 04:00 at night and we would not have been able to resist until then. The firemen told us to go to the rooftops, but we don’t have a skylight, so it meant going outside, floating. The situation was really dangerous. (In the photo, the arrow indicates the level reached by the water). At one point a cousin of my husband, who saw on social media that the river had broken through the embankment beside our house, called him and asked him if we were already out. Just from our voices he could tell that we were in danger and since he is an athlete, as a boy he was a surfer, he put on his wetsuit, took his surfboard and threw himself into the current. He swam to our house and pushing the surf board, one at a time, he loaded us on it and took us to safety, to the city walls, 500 meters from our house.

What did you see outside?

Immersed in the current, the whole perspective changed. The water had already surpassed the street signs, so you no longer knew if you were on the street or in the garden of a house. We passed over gates, over garages and we were so high that at one point he asked me to cling to what looked like a bush, but in reality, now that I can see it, it was a tree. I was the last one to be saved. We were welcomed into the house of a lady who knows us. We were soaking wet. She gave us clean clothes. That night was very cold, terrible conditions and it was raining. We warmed up and then we were able to go the 6 kms from the city where my mother-in-law lives. We were really lucky because we were among the first to get out. We did not experience what many told us afterwards was a night of real terror in the city.

Were the children aware of the danger?

Yes. I have three children aged 10, 8 and 6. At one point, the youngest kept running down the stairs because we could see the water rising step by step and he said to me: “I can only see 5 steps, 4 four steps. Let’s go to the terrace, we have to run away” and we said “we need to stay here at the window, because it’s raining outside. The police are coming.” They realized and slowly had to process what was happening, especially the oldest. We feared that in just an hour we wouldn’t make it. When we arrived at grandma’s they were calmer even though when they got there they began to realize that we had lost everything. They were saying, “Mum, we don’t have schoolbags anymore, we don’t have books, now what?” I explained to them that many would help us. And so it was.

How were those first days? Where did you find shelter?

We stayed with my mother-in-law for a few days because we couldn’t move around town. Then, later, we were welcomed by an aunt of a friend of my son who lives abroad and who lent us her house in the centre for a month. It was 10 minutes’ walk from where we lived so we were able to go to our house and start clearing it. It was a tight fit, but it really was a great gift which I realized even more later, when I started hearing other people’s stories. Volunteers also began to arrive throughout the city. Because of the Focolare Movement and my husband’s contacts, we always had help. People came from Parma, from Piacenza, from Veneto even including people who themselves have been through the earthquake in Emilia some years ago. There was a beautiful atmosphere of concrete help, and it was in this climate that, slowly, I began to throw everything away but I was really serene. Shovelling mud is an all-encompassing thing at the beginning, you try to do your best, with all your strength and then you realize that it’s not the things, the objects that make up your life, but everything else.

Your husband has a restaurant…

Yes. He could see from the cameras that fortunately the water didn’t get in but he wanted to see in person. One day he left at six in the morning thinking of taking the motorway but even that was closed. We came up with an idea: “let’s call the deputy mayor, and let’s tell him that if the civil protection can bring you to the restaurant, you could start cooking for everyone in need.” The idea was willingly accepted because there were already many displaced people., Luckily they had been able to bring many disabled and elderly  people to a hotel which is very close to my husband’s restaurant, but which does not have working kitchens. So my husband and two employees stayed the whole day at the restaurant and made 700 meals between lunch and dinner. There were 100 displaced people and then firefighters, civil protection personnel and since the restaurant is located right on Via Emilia, an access point, many of the people who had been stuck in the street, who had slept in the car without eating, came to the restaurant asking for help. The whole area of Cesena and Forlì was paralyzed.

What are you going to do now?

At the moment we have left that small house that we were using. We will move into a house that we have by the sea for a while and then we have rented an apartment for 18 months while we are waiting to fix up our house. The idea is to return to it in September 2024. But there are many questions, first of all to understand if there will be companies that can renovate all these houses, because there are so many of us. We’re talking about 12,000 people who are out of their houses. There are 6,000 families in our city alone and some houses, the oldest, have been declared uninhabitable. Now the houses have to dry out. We’ve already destroyed everything. We had parquet floors which we had to remove. The false ceilings on the ground floor came down on their own when the water came in. We had help to disconnect the toilets. Now every morning we go to open the windows and in the evening we go to close them and to turn on the dehumidifier. Luckily it’s summer, if this had happened in the autumn, it would have been an even greater disaster.

Is help still coming?

Absolutely yes and in many ways. For example, at the beginning we had thought of looking for an already furnished house so as not to have to have a double move, but we realized that people started to give everything: wardrobes, mattresses, furniture, and sofas. We decided to take an empty house so that we can begin to redecorate with this providence and then, in 18 months, bring everything back to our home, also because then there will certainly be other needs. People are really happy to help and I have to say that for me it was a lesson. I remember that one day, after the first flood, the house was upside down and the washing machine was broken. I said to myself, “I’ll prepare three bags, one of white clothes, one with coloured and one with dark ones, and then I’ll go to work. To the first colleague who asks me ‘how can I help you?’, I’ll say ‘would you be able to take all these clothes to wash’”. I was still at the door of the school and the bags were already taken. In these cases there is a stronger bond with people and above all I wasn’t too proud to ask for help. We accepted what was given to us and I feel that it is also a way to be honest about  my needs and say okay,  we love each other like this, just as we are. We also had a good relationship with our neighbours. We have lived there for four and a half years but I had never entered so many neighbour’s gardens, because life is hectic, we’re always in a rush. Whereas, now you go in, you greet each other, you help each other.

What stage is it at now?

The second phase has begun, that of establishing citizen committees to begin communicating with the municipal administration. I would immediately have excluded myself for various reasons, especially because in the past I held certain roles but  then I realized that without taking on too much, by listening, by staying in the chats, by helping those responsible for these committees, I can do my part. I owe it to my children who still ask me “but do we have to go back to live  there? Will we build an external staircase to the roof for the next time?” We need an active citizenship to keep an eye on the situation. I felt that I had to use my experience in the right way, building as many connections as possible, because now, as always happens with reconstruction, the greatest fear is to remain alone.

Are you hopeful?

Yes, absolutely. The other day we wanted to give a gift to the lady who offered us her house for the first month and, since Faenza is a city of ceramics, I bought a plaque to hang on the wall with the sentence, “The beautiful things of life are messy”. I thought, this was a huge, huge mess. We will need time to get back on track and we will make it, but I feel that I would never have had certain experiences without having gone through this difficult moment. I really feel that I have reached that point where you look at the essentials, at what really matters. It was terrible, but I can’t just think about the disaster, that the water took everything away and that was the end. There is much more to it than this.

Maria Grazia Berretta
(Interview with Carlos Mana – Photo: by Maria Chiara Campodoni)

It is still possible to contribute to emergency fundraising. If you want to donate, click here

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