by Madeleine Buckley
Fifty years ago, a young Millicent Marcus awoke in the early morning with a strange premonition – something was wrong. Getting out of bed, she looked through her window and immediately saw the problem. The river was in the street. Not two blocks away, like it was supposed to be. She was well into her semester living in Florence, Italy, as part of Syracuse University’s study abroad program. And she was witnessing the first hours of what would become the worst flood in Florentine history.
The morning of November 4, 1966, following three days of heavy rain, the Arno River began overflowing its banks. It poured into the streets, homes and churches of the city of Florence. According to a report published by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the flood damaged 885 works of art, 18 churches and over 10,000 other objects. While exact reports of casualties still vary, the flood resulted in the death of approximately 100 people, as well as hundreds of animals. Additional thousands were left homeless.
Within the city, there were also 54 Syracuse University (SU) students, like Marcus, each living as part of an Italian family, and each watching the waters rise outside of his or her adopted home. They had come to spend a semester studying in the historic city, unaware they would be living through a monumental tragedy.
The Flood Arrives – Creative Survival
In an interview with The Florentine, Diana Daffner, a Cornell student studying with SU for the semester, recalls waking up and starting to get ready that morning before she was interrupted by her host mother.
“My Italian mamma comes in and says, ‘I don’t think you’re going anywhere.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she replied, ‘Come look,’” Daffner said. “She took me across the hall to another apartment where we could look out, and we saw that the Arno was almost cresting the wall.”
Both Daffner and Marcus recall spending that whole day by the window with their families, waiting for the water to recede, which it began to do that evening. Throughout the day, Marcus remembers listening to a transistor radio her family had, but not hearing much helpful news.
“It was interspersed with stupid songs and commercials and normal programming of the radio day,” she said, “so we felt very strangely cut off from the world.”
The following morning, Marcus was surprised to see a boat, laden with supplies, making its way down her street.
“As it inched along, everybody sort of stuck their heads out their windows and lowered baskets down on ropes to try to get some of the provisions,” she said. However, the boat was empty by the time it reached her apartment.
The family, without electricity or running water, had to be creative with finding food. They “scavenged the innermost recesses of cabinets” and shared food with neighbors for the first few days.
“I’ll never forget that one of the meals they provided was cow’s brain, which is the most repulsive thing I can think of. But that is what we were reduced to,” Marcus said.
The lack of water and electricity continued for nearly a month, Marcus said. They lived in “a kind of pre-modern, pre-industrial world,” she said. “Our life was ruled by necessity—getting food, getting water, keeping the lights burning.” The family received some water from trucks but, as it was scarce, they often replaced water with wine.
“I brushed my teeth with Chianti,” Marcus said. Daffner, meanwhile, remembers surviving on bottled frizzante (sparkling) water.
After the Flood – A City in Ruin
As the families made do at home, the city outside was in a state of disrepair. The problem wasn’t so much the floodwaters as it was what they left behind. Being only four days into the winter season, Florentines’ underground oil tanks were newly filled. During the flood, the tanks burst, spilling Nafta oil into the water. This, mixed with “melma,” a “repulsive, sticky, gooey, foul-smelling mud that sort of sucked things into it” covered the city, Marcus said.
The day after the flooding had subsided, Marcus said you could only venture out if you had high boots. Thanks to the fashion of the day, both Daffner and Marcus had the appropriate footwear. When Daffner left her home, she was surprised to see the doors to her building completely gone. Marcus describes the scene at the city center as devastating.
“I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like the end of the world,” she said.
Both women distinctly remember seeing the missing panels from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “The Doors of Paradise,” artwork that adorns the doors of the Florence Baptistery. Marcus said she “burst into tears” upon seeing it. Marcus recalls one other specific, “shocking” memory from that day.
“In the midst of all the mud and horror, there was this woman dressed in white. Elegant white, wearing spike heels, gloves and a stylish hat. She had come as a tourist to see the ruins. And it was just unthinkable to me. But I was happy to notice that her beautiful, white outfit was a little bit stained with mud.”
Removing the Mud – Angels Among Men
In the days following the flood, global news organizations reported on the work of “Gli Angeli del Fango,” or “Mud Angels,” young people from all over the world who came to assist with the rescue and restoration of the city’s art. They specifically worked in the “Biblioteca Nazionale,” the national library, where the most valuable works had been kept underground and were severely damaged. Both Marcus and Daffner were among those who volunteered. Each describes being part of a bucket-brigade-style rescue of the precious manuscripts.
Daffner, to her disappointment, only worked a few days before her family asked her to stop, as there was no way to wash off the mud she was tracking back into the house. However, she found the experience rewarding. “It felt like we were saving culture, and that Florence cared greatly about [our efforts],” she said.
Marcus, meanwhile, continued to work in the library, as well as churches and hospitals, removing precious works and mud. She would go out every day, she said, in her “uniform” of knee-high, rubber, fake alligator boots and a blue trench coat.
“Having to handle what we knew were beautiful, precious manuscripts covered with this repulsive muck was so sad,” she said. “It was just heartbreaking.”
She specifically remembers an occasion when she was especially muddy and encountered an elderly man in the street.
“[He] stopped me, and he asked me if I had fallen,” she said. “And I said, ‘No, I’ve been working at the Biblioteca Nazionale.’ And he lowered his eyes and he whispered, ‘Thank you.’ It was very, very moving.”
Contacting the States – Isolation and Miscommunication
In an age prior to text messages, emails and wifi, it was difficult for students to get news back to family and friends in the states. Wendy Harris, a student who was back in Syracuse at the time of the flood, remembers waiting for days or weeks to hear news of her friends’ safety.
“The world moved a lot slower…” Harris said. “I remember being on pins and needles about it.”
Marcus remembers that her parents were “absolutely frantic,” as they had no news, only rumors. They heard that hundreds of American exchange students had died, but had no success contacting television stations, newspapers or the State Department to confirm, Marcus said. Back in Florence, the students had just as much trouble trying to reach home. Marcus remembers the students “trooped down to the American Consulate in Florence,” but that the Consulate was “completely inept and unhelpful.” They said the students’ names would be forwarded to Rome and then wired to the United States as soon as possible but, Marcus said, that never happened. Daffner, however, did reach her family successfully via a telegraph office with “a candle and an old-fashioned telegraph machine.” Paying per letter, she only sent four words: “Don’t worry, everything’s fine.”
“All of which was a lie,” she said. “Nothing was fine. We had no water, we had no electricity, no heat, we had nothing. But I didn’t want them to worry, because I was ok.”
Daffner eventually did get through on the phone, and later was surprised to learn she was a “celebrity”. After hearing their daughter was safe, Daffner’s parents alerted the Associated Press. The Syracuse Post Standard was one of many papers with the headline “Coed Describes Flood Devastation.”
Returning to “Normal” – The Actions of Syracuse University
The original purpose of the semester was to study, and classes did go on. In an anonymous letter published in the student newspaper, The Daily Orange, on November 17, 1966, a student explained that after a few days off, faculty resumed classes to “try to assume some type of normal schedule.” The student wrote that SU offered short-term transfers to a school in nearby Bologna, but no one would go.
“Firenze is more a part of us now than any place in the U.S.,” he or she wrote. “We enjoyed Firenze in its glory. I don’t thank that we have any right to desert her in her ‘darkest hour.’”
Daffner and Marcus have both forgotten about post-flood classes, but Marcus remembers SU responding in other ways. As soon as students could reach the school, they received gamma globulin shots to prevent hepatitis. Then, eight days after the flood, they were taken on a bus trip to Bologna.
“We were absolutely so repulsive looking,” Marcus said. “And the first thing we did was go to a [day hotel] where we took showers. I think I took the longest shower of my entire life, just peeling away at the layers of mud and junk.”
Then, Marcus said, the school took them to a laundromat and a hair salon, where people “could not believe the horror” of the students’ clothes and hair. Finally, they had a “fabulous meal” before returning to Florence.
“[Back] to the city of mud, and greys, and browns and dirt,” she said. “But we went back because it was our mission.”
After the flood, many students were moved out of their host homes and into other housing. There was a caveat that host families could claim that their host child was needed in the home. Marcus’ family did so, and she lived with them for the rest of the semester.
“They wanted me to stay, and I wanted to stay,” Marcus said. “There’s no way I was going to abandon them.”
Responding to the Need – The Campus Back Home
Meanwhile, the SU students in the United States did not sit idly by. A group of students, calling themselves the Syracuse Students for Florence Relief (SSFR), began a fundraising campaign after hearing about the flood. The group was led by the late Pete Dutkevitch, according to a December 7, 1966 article in the Syracuse Post Standard.
The students organized an array of activities to raise money, the most publicized of which was “Fast for Florence.” Students “signed-away” their dining hall meal for Monday, February 27, 1967, and the cost of each meal (50 cents) went towards their stated goal of $2,500 ($18,000 in today’s dollars).
A majority of the students who joined the group were alumni of the Florence abroad program. According to the Post Standard, 30 of the 40 students involved had previously studied in Italy. Some of the other students, like Wendy Harris, got involved because they knew someone in the program. For Harris, that person was her best friend, Sarah Ragsdale. Harris recalls being a “prime mover” in the effort, as she was “completely nonplussed” that the university did not seem to be responding to news of the flood.
She went to the chancellor, William P. Tolley, to ask for his support. He agreed to match whatever the students raised. Harris went straight to the Daily Orange to break the news. The next morning, she was called back for another meeting.
“They said, ‘Get your ass into the office right now. The chancellor wants to speak with you,’” she said. “So I got called on the carpet and told that wasn’t going to happen. And I basically said, ‘You wouldn’t go back on your word. We have to do something for the families.’”
The meeting was successful, and the school did, ultimately, agree to match. Like Harris, former SSFR member Robert Infarinato does not remember getting a lot of support from the SU administration. He does, however, remember collaborating with the Department of International Programs Abroad (DIPA), the office that is now called Syracuse University Study Abroad. Infarinato said the department helped deliver the funds to those in need, and its headquarters served as a meeting point for interested students.
The SSFR was also unique in its fundraising mission. The money was for the residents of Florence, specifically those who housed SU students, as opposed to the art and structural restoration efforts. While they were sensitive to the destruction in the city, the students felt a stronger relationship to the people. Infarinato, who had spent the previous semester in Florence, felt very connected to the families who housed him.
“A lot of other people could be feeling the same way [about the art], even if they only spent a week there, five days there or two days there,” he said. “What really was important to us is what happened to the people we knew. And you really want to do your utmost because you know what it means to the people you are doing it for.”
Daring to Serve – The Youthful Mindset
Nicholas Kraczyna, a current SU Florence professor, was living in Florence at the time of the flood. The 26-year-old took it upon himself to go out and take photos of the flood and the aftermath. Unlike many professional photographers, he specifically photographed the Mud Angels and the Florentine people. Kraczyna said that he, like the Mud Angels and SSFR members, did not hesitate to act. But he admits he wouldn’t jump in the same way now, if the situation arose again.
“It is interesting how somebody at that age thinks differently…” he said. “When I went out of the house, the water was up to my shins, and when I came back, it was over my waist. The foolish things that young people do, not thinking about the consequences.”
Youths, Kraczyna said, are unique in their ability to take action in events like this due to their willingness to be “bold, active and courageous.” While calling his own actions foolish, he greatly admired the young people who volunteered their time.
“Seeing how the youth from all over the world came together to collaborate, to salvage that which they absolutely believed belongs to all of us, was a great feature, filling me with hope,” he said. “A war brings out the worst, but natural disasters bring out the best.”
Marcus, who recalls many college students joining her as a Mud Angel, agrees with Kraczyna.
“I think young people have a great desire to be involved in history … to be helpful and generous and giving,” Marcus said. “And I think the flood provided an incredible occasion for that.”
Infarinato believes the formation of SSFR can be accredited to youth as well. He said the students were ready to respond in active ways that older people were not.
“[College-aged people] don’t have the money, they have the care,” he said. “And it shifts as you get older. The older people have the money, but are maybe less energetic to participate in something like this. But if someone convinced them to do it, they may write a bigger check.”
Then, Now, and the Days to Come – the Legacy of the Florence Flood
Now, 50 years later, the impact of the flood continues to show. While the melma and Nafta are long gone, many street corners in Florence display plaques indicating the high-water marks from that day in 1966, and famed works of art are fortified with a pulley system that can save them from future flood waters.
Some other changes are on a larger, cultural scale. For example, Kraczyna remembers a noticeable shift in the aesthetic quality of Florentine shops and restaurants – from carved wood and marble to chrome and neon. These cheaper substitutes were brought in after the flood to get ready for tourist season, and they have remained.
“So now if you go into the center of Florence, it’s not as bad as Tokyo or Times Square, but it’s in that direction,” Kraczyna said. “Full of light, full of neon, full of plastic.”
The flood also had a personal impact on those who lived through it. Marcus, who is now the Italian Department chair at Yale University, claims the experience was life changing.
“I certainly felt such a connection to the city as a result,” she said. “Such a deep, deep connection.”
Yet, while the flood certainly changed things, the spirit of Florence has stayed the same, Kraczyna said. He recalls that even the year of the flood, despite the damage, the city still held its annual parade on January 1, 1967.
“Having this regatta showed that they had to continue living and coexisting with the Arno,” he said. “They don’t give up, no matter what happens.”
Looking into the future, Kraczyna said it is not a matter of if the Arno River will flood again, but when. There are efforts such as the 2016 Progetto Firenze, which aims to spread awareness of the 1966 flood and “prevent, mitigate and avoid future disasters” in Florence and elsewhere.
In the meantime, the SU study abroad program continues to thrive, sending hundreds of students to its Florence campus each year. Living with host families, they continue to forge bonds that tie SU to the city of Florence. If a disaster were to strike again, it is almost certain that these students would respond with the same bravery, compassion and commitment as their 1966 counterparts.