Interview with Mauro Somigli: An Account of the Days of the Flood

“It had been raining for days, incessantly and intensely. The Arno was full for weeks.

It was late evening, Thursday, November 3rd, I remember being at home with my family when the bell rang. We all looked at each other surprised because we weren’t expecting anyone at that hour. My cousin – who lived in Ellera (a small hamlet in Compiobbi on the SS67) – was on our doorstep. He said, “I was in Pontassieve for dinner and when I was going home I couldn’t pass through because the Arno overflowed in Le Sieci and no one can get by. I wanted to return to Pontassieve but the other side of the road was already flooded. The only free path was up the hill towards Fiesole and now I’ve come down to Florence to be with you.”

Indeed, earlier that day we looked down at the river from our window and noticed that it was higher than usual, but we never would have imagined what was about to happen. As a precautionary measure – you never know! – we went down to the basement and brought up our Moto m 48 to the first floor to keep it safe just in case the basement flooded, along with a few other household items. We did right because everything we left behind was lost. After talking for a bit about what had happened (and the worst was yet to come), we decided to notify my aunt and uncle to let him know that their son was with us and that he was safe. We tried to contact them for a while but by now the telephone lines weren’t working. We started to worry more and more, especially my father, who, among the various precautions he took (he went down to the street to tie the car to a railing), started to fill several containers with water, including the bathtub, which I had never seen full to the brim before.

I brought up an old gas lamp from the basement because the lights started going in and out. We depended on that that single, small flame, which we only turned up every so often in an effort to save the gas because otherwise, once it was gone we’d be completely in the dark. It wasn’t like today where every house has flashlights, batteries, lamps, candles, and even large scented candles….! Compared to many, we were lucky to have the lamp in addition to a few candles. The following evenings, when there were no lights, that small, red lantern with its large wooden handle, was simply fantastic!

After preparing a bed for our unexpected guest, we all went to sleep. And so, the night wore on, and in other areas along the Arno and many of its tributaries tragedy was striking relentlessly with widespread death and destruction. The morning after was wretched because we noticed firstly that water had leaked out from the grates (the tremendous pressure of the Arno’s waters invaded the city’s entire sewer system and spilled out of all the grates and valves in the Arno until it reached the same swollen levels of the river, according to the principle of communicating vessels) had flooded the basements and ground street. Really, it was only a few dozen centimeters of water compared to the street which retreated quickly anyway. To our surprise, we discovered that Isolotto (in the area around the church) was higher than some surrounding areas, including Cascine Park, which was now filled with an immense lake. Overnight, the water invaded the hippodrome and the zoo, and flooded all the houses and buildings in the area. Many horses and all the zoo animals died, including the legendary Canapone, a beloved camel. I won’t discuss the accounts of death and destruction, the painful heralds of grief and enormous damage, but instead, I want to focus specifically on describing Isolotto. Essentially, in the area running along the left bank of the Arno, from via Torcicoda, via Mortuli, and vie dei Platani, the river didn’t cause much damage and we were already, let’s say, dry by the morning.

In via Torcicoda, early in the morning of November 4th, a lot of water was still flowing by, enough to make us think we were in the middle of a torrent. In that moment, us guys were looking around – obviously, no one went to school, everything was interrupted, stopped. As we walked around, we ran into something rather remarkable: a guy about our age that lived in an old farmhouse situated under street level, and so flooded out, threw himself into the water just as we were arriving (we came up behind him) with a shopping bag in his mouth (I think) and swam all the way to the “bank of via Torcicoda.”

He was met with our thunderous applause while he attempted to dry himself off with some clothes that some charitable person brought him. He then went into an open bar and took some things to eat for his house…..Then, with disdainful defiance towards us as we watched what he was doing, he walked in the direction of his house where his family was waiting for him, glued to their window. We named him “Tozzi del Lago,” our Dearest friend. I’d actually like to track him down so we could meet. Shortly after, news began circulating of the enormous damages that the city had suffered. Of course, in the immediate term, attention was given first and foremost to saving lives, houses, and businesses flooded out, with great difficulty for the unfortunate citizens.

It’s important to understand that we weren’t just dealing with simple water, but a watery mix of naphtha (from heating tanks), sewage, and everything the waters had diluted and dragged along as it advanced uncontrollably. We decided to head towards the center. We passed through streets that instead of paved stones or asphalt were just large patches of sand, diesel, and other stuff that had fused together creating a black, gray, brownish colour. This putrid liquid was an unmistakable sign of how high the water levels had reached as the water spread. As we walked towards the Santa Maria Novella Station, we saw cars flipped upside down or piled on top of each other. A sight I will never forget was in the underpass of the train station, in via Alamanni: it was completely obstructed with automobiles as high as the level of the train tracks. And to complete the scene: almost at the top of this automobile mountain was a newspaper stand.

Every once in a while a fire truck or a police car would zip by. Everyone was running around but the emergency vehicles were still in the water. That day, dressed in our everyday boots and with some buckets, we stopped in via del Pignone to help the less fortunate pull as much as possible out of their houses. As the hours, the minutes passed by, we began to imagine what the real damage left behind by this catastrophe would be and how much the city would suffer as it worked to get back on its feet. Not to forget those who lost their lives and the many who lost everything or almost everything they had worked so hard to earn. So between a dripping, dirty, badly smelling couch, pulled out of an apartment, and the dozens of buckets of sludge being passed from hand to hand, we arrived to the evening, tired, and we decided to head back home. Obviously, during the entire day, we didn’t eat anything; we didn’t even have water to drink because the aqueduct was gone. That evening at home, we washed ourselves with little more than a pot of “cold” water each and then with a bit of bread from the day before we had something to eat, under the restorative light of the small gas lamp, and then we went to bed. There was no news, other than what we could see and what we had personally observed that day. Early the next day, we heard sounds coming from the piazza. Outside the window we saw an emergency vehicle with men who were distributing some stuff. We went to meet them and they gave us blue overalls and a little shovel. We didn’t bother accepting boots because we were already wearing our own or the tools they tried give us because they were worn down too much to be useful. We were told to go to the city center where we were surely needed. And so we did. For a couple of days – I don’t remember exactly where and when (every once in a while a photographer would pass by, immortalizing our work) – we helped to empty stores and apartments near Ponte all Vittoria. I remember that despite being a strapping, young 18-year-old, the work was hard. And not just because of the strain and sacrifice, but also for what you could read in each other’s eyes: desperation, anxiety, resignation. We tried to express encouraging thoughts, like that economic help would be arriving soon, but much of these attempts went unacknowledged. With regards to my cousin, on the third or fourth day the telephone lines were restored. That morning the telephone rang – I remember the old, black device attached to the wall near the entrance – and my mother answered it, saying immediately “G……..o is here.” She recognized her sister’s voice and without letting her finish her sentence, she gave her the good news. Indeed, they were desperate since they hadn’t had any news of their son in three days. His parents said that the road might be passable again, and so, my cousin jumped on his C4 and went back to his parents.

Meanwhile, in Isolotto, it was now the 7th or 8th of November, the parish priest, Don Enzo Mazzi, had organized a help center and emergency supply distribution point for the needy. He asked us to help him as volunteers. I was with others more or less my same age (it wasn’t a place for children or the elderly because there was a lot of work and it was difficult). The next day, boxes of food stuffs began to arrive. At first it was a mountain of pasta and little boxes, but we eventually began receiving oil, butter, cheeses, and jams. At a certain point, we were better stocked than a large supermarket. Of course, as soon as things were available for distribution, the venture became hard to manage, in so far as when the rumor of “everything is free” began to spread, anyone arrived to get a bag of supplies. We understood that the endeavour needed to be organized in order to have a bit of control, without of course becoming too stringent but at the same time without over distributing and falling short on supplies. And so, we took turns getting first and last names of those in line at the door, as well as where they lived, what damaged they had suffered, and how many were in their family. It was all written by hand – I don’t remember if in a notebook or on pieces of paper. We started to distribute vouchers with the daily portions listed, which varied on the basis of stock quantities in the storage room, quantities that were based on which foods had to be consumed faster than others. For example, when 200 kilograms of butter arrived, it was calculated that it would need to be distributed within one or two days, given that there were no refrigerators. And although it was winter, the temperatures weren’t cool. Of course, there were several cases of profiting.

There were those who declared they had more people in their family or those who returned after a few hours attempting to receive another allotment. In the more glaring cases, we tried to intervene, without going too far of course, and in other cases, we would turn a blind eye. As time went by, the entire operation took on a rather industrial feel, and it became necessary to assess the provisions many times a day, both in order to not allocate stuff that was already finished and to avoid distributing things that we wanted to keep on the shelves a little longer, especially since we never knew if we would get a new delivery. The most important thing that happened to me was about mid-way through the month, when a desperate mother showed up because she didn’t have any milk for her baby and she couldn’t find powdered milk. We heard that there was a stock of powdered milk in Pontassieve. No one was able to quickly procure a vehicle to go get the milk, so I volunteered to go, given that I had prior experience driving on the banks of the Arno with my father’s trusty Motom 48 Superelle.

So in the late morning, wearing a helmet and glasses, with a small knapsack on my back, I took off toward Pontassieve. I can’t even describe the astonishment that I felt crossing Florence, still glaringly, deeply affected by the flood. Mountains of rubble, furniture, and cars everywhere, signs of how high the waters had reached, dozens of people at work like ants entering and exiting stores, basements, and buildings, all busy and quick in their individual movements. I arrived outside Florence, on the SS67, literally passing over piles of crumbling sand, stopped right where there river left them. I realized that that road was practically just a path of mud, rubble, sand, and stones, which was really unstable to navigate. But at 18 years old, everything seemed possible, so I continued on my mission. I remember an endless zig-zagging course as I moved on. In some stretches, I saw the river right underneath me, 30 meters or so, without any barrier in between – just an endless slope of rubble and mud the closer you got to the river. To my right, the railroad tracks were filled with water in some parts, but in others still free and “accessible,” enough so that at a certain point I thought about traveling along the tracks. They couldn’t have been much more difficult to drive on than the road I was currently on. Obviously, when I found an unflooded section, it was a dream.

A clear path, and OBVIOUSLY no traffic. As I passed by houses, some people would appear and often they asked me for news of my destination or of where I came from or what I knew. I shared the little information I had and explained that I was in a hurry because there was a hungry child waiting for me. This account of my journey merits a bit more detail, but to finish up, I will say that I arrived in Pontassieve (I don’t remember where), grabbed the packages of milk (whatever could fit in my backpack), made my way back to Florence 5 (as the supply distribution center in Isolotto was called), and turned over my bag, while others saw to its delivery to the desperate mother. An intense morning I will remember for the rest of my life, with a few moments of fear: fear of not being able to complete my journey, fear of falling into the Arno or anywhere along the way, where certainly no one would have passed by nor did anyone know which way I went. Over the next several days, until normalcy was eventually restored, I worked for up to ten hours a day at the distribution center.

I didn’t save a rare book, but I feel at ease and honestly believe that I worked as hard as the others who’ve come to be known as the “saviours” of Florence. In the months following the flood, affected Florentines were sold many things, with and without subsidies: automobiles, furniture, clothes, heaters, as well as services to help clear out ruined items and restore commercial and industrial activities. While some people died or didn’t have the energy to get back on their feet, others saw it as a commercial opportunity never-before-seen in the area in modern times, comparable only to those years during World War II. It seems like an illogical conclusion to the event, but that was the reality. A cordiale saluto, Mauro”