I came to Florence in February 1966 to study Italian language at the Centro per Stranieri. I was looking forward to starting the fall term of my studies in November when the flood struck the city. I began to write letters to my parents so I could share what was happening to me and to Florence. As it was difficult at the beginning to send mail, my letters turned into a journal I wrote for my family to read when I returned home. I wrote nearly every day. After sitting under my bed in a box for fifty years, I am now sending these pages to the city of Florence in response to their request for the stories and memories of Mud Angels. I did not change the writing style of a 21 year old, but I did move verbs from present to past tense.
I spent only three weeks in Florence in the aftermath of the flood, far less than the countless number of Mud Angels who dedicated months and months working to salvage the city’s priceless art and manuscripts. Hopefully, though, the volunteer efforts our little group of students and our emergency center in Via dei Rustici made a small difference.
Reading through the pages today, I don’t think I said enough about my extraordinary university student friends —their humor, their thoughts and endearing quirks— or how grateful I am for all the memories of their special friendship. I am grateful that I got to know and work beside Peter and Mary Denzer, the American artists who made our emergency center possible, who, I learned years later, eventually moved back to the US and spent the rest of their active lives in Minnesota. I wonder if I explained fully enough my feelings when the flood caused the inward-looking world of my landlady and my outward-looking vision to collide.
More than anything, though, I am grateful for the extraordinary lesson in courage, strength, and resilience I witnessed over and over again in the people of Florence during that tragic time.
November 3 –Thursday
Judy and I had come into the city to meet friends and see Peter Seller’s movie, Caccia alla Volpe (After the Fox). Judy, an American opera student, Birgitte and Elsbeth, two students from Switzerland, and I rented rooms from a Signora who lived in a beautiful villa on the road leading to Fiesole. It was raining heavily after the movie and we got home soaked.
November 4 – Friday
I woke up to hear the Signora talking frantically on the telephone. “Florence invaded by Arno”, “Everything under Water.” Our lights and telephone were working, but water wasn’t coming through the faucets very well. Immediately I said I wanted to go into town. I couldn’t imagine that the headlines were true; I wanted to see for myself and make sure that my friends who lived in the city near the river were safe. In front of the Signora’s house, heavy traffic headed up toward Fiesole. Sixteen or more cars lined up at each gas station. It was still raining hard and I didn’t have any boots. I waited at the Piazza Edison #10 bus stop, but after nearly a half hour, I walked down to the #17 stop. Several people were waiting there, but there were no buses that day. One of the Signora’s neighbors who was waiting there said she had a store in Piazza Della Republica which we found out later was over waist-high in water. A bus driver, who lived nearby and often bought some of the Signora’s fresh eggs, passed by in his car on his way into town and gave us a lift to Piazza San Marco. He told us that ATAF was moving buses out of the city’s low areas to higher ground. He said he had heard reports that the water in some parts of Florence had reached second story windows. I worried more and more about my friends.
The streets around Piazza San Marco were jammed with traffic, and there were long lines of people hoping to buy water and food. I couldn’t find any store selling boots and my feet were soaked. Military half-amphibious tanks rumbled through the streets heading to where the water was much deeper. I still had no idea what the more serious flooding was like in harder hit areas.
I learned soon enough. I couldn’t even approach the Duomo. A few blocks away I was already up to my ankles in water, and it wasn’t just plain water; a thick coating of naphtha, like oily brown molasses, floated on top. About a block away from the Duomo, a cross street was a raging river with a strong current and I couldn’t go further. Regardless, a few people still tried to move forward and struggled to keep their balance. I had to turn around and walk back to the Signora’s house. When I got there, there were at least twenty buses parked in Piazza Edison on up to her house and beyond. Our lights failed that night but came back after a few hours. We filled every possible container with water. The Signora couldn’t use the gas to cook because it was dangerous.
November 5 – Saturday
I walked into town again. The streets were filled with all types of emergency vehicles, crowds of people milled about looking at the destruction, and at every store, shopkeepers took in the magnitude of their losses as they picked through debris. Where I waded the day before in ankle-deep water, I now saw an oily water line up to my waist. Overturned cars — sometimes two or three jumbled on top of each other, mud covered wreckage everywhere. Ankle deep in mud I slogged over to Via del Corso; the water marks were at least a foot over my head. Store after store, not one was saved, and there was blackish brown mud covering the streets and the entire insides of stores. It was heartbreaking; no street was left untouched. The famous Motta where Mom and I went for tea and toast was in complete ruin. Its windows lay in the street and I could see a greasy jumble of broken counters and chairs inside. And the Baptistery. The famous Gold Doors of Paradise by Ghiberti, half of the panels lay in the street. Shop fronts were twisted and distorted as though there had been an explosion. And there was mud and more mud. Street after street. I took some photographs, but you needed a moving camera to capture the enormity of the devastation. I was glad, Mom, that you came to visit in August and got to see Florence before this happened.
In front of Hirut’s and Eva’s door, the car of Eva’s boyfriend was turned upside down in the street. I ran into Mickey, a friend of theirs, bringing bottles of water back from Piazza Della Signoria where water was being distributed to lines of people. He said they couldn’t get out at all yesterday, but things were all right as they lived on the top floor of their apartment building. I walked the three blocks toward the river to Eugenio’s and Tolis’ apartment building but they were not home. After waiting about an hour on their steps, I was relieved to see them finally coming down the street. They had been out looking for Eugenio’s car. He doesn’t even know where it is and said he didn’t think insurance would cover it. A small beige Fiat 500, it was swept away by the current.
The three of us took a walk. Ponte Vecchio was just the frame. The beautiful jewelry shops were filled with tree branches and debris. They had no back walls, no front walls. Near the bridge, we saw that a big chunk of the Lungarno was swept away by the river. The railings, balustrades, and shops were gone, including the one where Mom and I looked at marble crucifixes for St. Thomas Church in Chicago. We crossed over the bridge to the other side. There as well, we saw cars stacked three or four on top of each other. I told my friends I had to get home so as not to anger the Signora, but I would try to meet them the next day.
Every five minutes a helicopter flew low over the Signora’s house. They were going out to Campo di Marte and other rural areas to rescue those who were sick and isolated and bring them food. Our water at the Signora’s was getting scarce. There was no milk, butter was running, out and we couldn’t light the stove to cook.
Judy and I started going out on hunting expeditions for the Signora—bottled water, pasta, butter, sugar, bread. We went to a number of shops, asking for what each little store around Piazza Edison could give us. Stores on the edges of town were open, but supplies remained limited. Brigitte and Elsbeth had gone to Rome on the first of November and had not been able to return. The Signora’s garden had a well, which was now quite low. The water was not potable, but we used it for washing clothes and the WC. The Signora was somehow now able to use her stove. Maybe she had a propane tank. I didn’t ask. We were not allowed to go into the kitchen if she wasn’t there, not even for a glass of water. Once a day she heated water for washing the dishes. The pharmaceutical warehouses that had supplies of disinfectants had flooded out so the Signora used lemons. For drinking, we had some bottles of water, mostly fizzy and a few without carbonation. The Signora had a bottle of a boric acid solution for washing our eyes because our eyes were irritated from particles of dust in the air from the drying mud that even managed to reach her house. I bought medicine for colds and sore throat in case I got sick. I worried about not being able to get to the dentist to fix a filling, but then, dentists in town didn’t have water or electricity.
There is frost on the Signora’s windows and we were all cold and had to wear several layers of clothing. We were lucky, though; the Signora’s house was safe and dry. I couldn’t imagine if, in addition to the cold, the house had been damp. The Signora said it would have been worse if the weather had been hot because the cold temperature helped reduce the chance of epidemics and plague. We heard on the news that morning that they were trying to burn all the dead animals in the countryside as quickly as possible in order to avoid an outbreak.
The Signora knew many people in our neighborhood because she sold them fresh eggs, rabbits, pigeons, fruits and vegetables. She kept the first floor of the villa for herself, renting out its elegant rooms to female students. She only kept a small bedroom opposite the small soggiorno (living room) in the back of the house and the large pink-tiled bathroom for herself. We students used the small bathroom next to the servizio (utility room). She got up early every morning at 5:30 am awakened by a telephone service. Wearing her husband’s long bathrobe, she would shuffle into the kitchen wearing felt slippers to polish the highly waxed floor. By 6:00 am she was dressed and back in the kitchen preparing the soups and sauces for the meals of the day and she would then go into the servizio to make up the small packages for her customers. She had an extraordinary garden; a small path sloped down to a pond where she had a chicken coop and raised rabbits and pigeons. She was an exceptional cook and mealtimes were very important for her. She said that we students where a family and for that reason we must eat together. If one or another of us ate outside, she would complain about it to the rest of us. She worked all day, but never allowed us to help with anything in the house, not even dry the dishes.
She had four dogs and it was their photographs that hung on the walls. Two German shepherds, Buch and Black, stayed outside to guard the house and garden. Tarchi, the Signora’s old gardener took care of them along with the other animals. Catone, an enormous German shepherd, timid and sweet, and a russet-colored cocker spaniel, Dick, lived in the house. Dick was the Signora’s favorite and slept on her bed at night. The only time the Signora left her house was to get her hair done once a month at the beauty parlor. No one used the villa’s front door. All of us, including the Signora, used the door from the servizio. As soon as the door closed behind her, Dick would curl up under the stove in the servizio with his eye on the door. He didn’t move until she returned.
All of her customers came to her. She didn’t even go out to post a letter because the postman of San Domenico was one of her tenants in the villa. The green grocer, the dry cleaner, anyone providing a service, came to her. Other than the customers who came to buy her foodstuffs, it seemed to us that her only other link to the world was the telephone. We found her idiosyncrasies strange, but amusing, even charming. All that changed for me during the terrible days of the flood.
The Signora didn’t want me to go into the city at all. She said I would get sick and asked who would take care of me then. Judy and I were incredibly astonished when she told us that “Florence was finished,” that there was “nothing we or anybody else could do.” I was quite stubborn, though, and the last thing I wanted was to feel “sidelined.” I didn’t want to feel like a foreigner, “una straniera;” the city needed so much help. Not heeding the Signora’s words, I again went into town. The buses had started to run limited service into town as far as Piazza San Marco. There were large numbers of people walking in the streets. The center of the city was still closed to normal traffic, but water-pumping trucks, army tanks, police cars, ambulances filled the streets. A lot of the mud had dried, but a thick coat of dust hung over the streets. There was an awful stench as well, it was from the petroleum that coated everything, the rotting meat in the butcher and fish shops, the dead rats and animals, and the dampness turned sour.
Another aspect of the tragedy is that below street level, Florence is hollow. The Signora told us that you could build another city underground. Most shops had their warehouses and storage rooms underground. Many clubs and restaurants were underground. Some movie theaters had lower levels. A hospital that had expensive radiation instruments below ground for the treatment of tumors and cancer was completely devastated. I walked along the Arno from the American Express (I couldn’t get in) to the bridge before Ponte Vecchio. I wasn’t walking on the cement street, but on dirt, the cement just wasn’t there anymore.
The street ended in broken heaps of rock and debris tumbling into the river. By this time I was feeling a little sick, probably from the dust in my throat, so I had to find a place to sit and rest. I couldn’t find my friends at home so I again found a dry spot on the steps of their house and briefly fell asleep. With no one returning home, I woke up and walked back to Piazza San Marco and caught the bus back to the Signora’s.
Helicopters continued to fly over Signora’ house headed to Campo di Marte, a badly stricken area. We heard on the news that 80 convicts had managed to escape from prison. I hadn’t gone to my school, il Centro per Stranieri, because it was the inter-term period and I wondered if before the end of the month they would be able to hold classes. The bank of Rome was flooded and remained closed and I knew it soon would be time to pay my rent. The Signora asked that I go out and find some salt, coffee, and Vitamin C tablets. Every day or so I would try and write in this journal, but I was usually in bed at 8:00 pm and slept like a log. The main Post Office seemed to be operating again since trains and many of the roads out of the city had been opened. I decided to try to mail out a few letters, but never made it as far as the Post Office. I started collecting newspapers everyday and had quite a stack. I wanted to keep them but had no idea how I was going to take them all back to the US.
The fear of a possible epidemic was rising. Over the radio we heard that the Florentine government was organizing mass vaccinations.
I decided to go back into town, but didn’t know where or how to volunteer. It continued to drizzle and I still didn’t have boots. I put on a pair of socks, old shoes and two huge plastic sacks over my feet and legs. I bound them Greek-style around my legs with string. The bottoms wore through the plastic before I reached the end of the block, so my efforts were useless. Bus service still only went as far as Piazza San Marco.
In Via Tornabuoni I saw a woman bending over a pile of muddy debris in the street while a teenage boy inside her shop swept water and mud onto the sidewalk. I approached her, and asked if she would let me help. I will never forget her face—it was so beautiful, magnificent without makeup. She smiled gently and thanked me, but said she would be ok and that I should not worry. I was disappointed, but she looked so strong, so determined and resilient. There were streaks of mud on her forehead and hair, but there were no tears. For me, she embodied the strength and resilience I saw everywhere. I never saw a single Florentine cry during those days. I was in awe.
I trudged on hoping to find my friends and see if they knew where I could help out or ask if I could join them if they were already volunteering. Could I work in a hospital doing small errands? I didn’t know and I was afraid my weak mastery of Italian would be a hindrance. By chance, my walk took me past the National Library where I saw lines of people helping to salvage the books. I immediately asked if I could help and thus spent the rest of the day standing in a long chain of people; most of them seemed to be university students. We were a human conveyor belt passing books out of the lower levels of the Library up to where volunteers would try to dry them out and restore them. The line started in the basement and snaked out into the street. I had no lunch, but was able to return to the Signora’s in time for dinner.
November 8 – Tuesday
On this day I was stationed on the second story balcony surrounding the courtyard of the Library. I was given a thick mud-soaked book and taught how to carefully separate the pages, sprinkle a drying powder that would preserve the ink, and then place a special piece of paper between the pages to further dry them out and keep them from sticking together. The news said that the National Library suffered damage to over 3 million books and manuscripts, maybe more. The salvage work will be monumental. While I was working there, I was surprised by noted American journalist Frank Kearns and his camera crew. They were from CBS News and had been interviewing American students helping with the aftermath of the flood. Kearns asked where I was from and asked me to explain what I was doing. When CBS aired this footage on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, my surprised, but relieved, parents saw it at home in Chicago, finally seeing for themselves that I was okay.
Every night when I reached the Signora’s house, I would now pass by the entrance to the servizio and head for the garden at the back of the house where Tarchi would pump a bucket of water for me to wash my boots. He laughed as I told him how the Signora hated my muddy boots in spite of how hard I tried to clean them. I had to be sure not the slightest speck was left. I would then go up the stairs in my socks, holding my boots in my hand, to the back entrance of the villa and wait for the Signora to open the door. We students were not allowed to have keys to the house.
Unfortunately, this night, I returned home quite late. Telephone communications were still erratic and there was no available phone that I could find. Public transportation was sometimes erratic as well. I came after the dinner hour, but asked the Signora if I might eat something. She told me how inconsiderate I was, that she had schedules to keep, and would not be kept up all night. I would have gladly eaten anything, even a piece of fruit, since I hadn’t eaten since noon. I never directly entered the kitchen as I always stopped in the servizio to wash off any traces of mud. The Signora impatiently called from the kitchen saying that if I was coming to eat, I needed to come right away, subito, because she wanted to go to bed. I was too tired to argue and managed to get out of most of my clothes and throw on a bathrobe. I hurried into the kitchen not realizing I still had smudges of mud on my knees. She took one look at me and said she couldn’t have me so dirty at her table. She said that if I continued to work in the city and returned home so dirty, she couldn’t keep me in her house. I was furious, exasperated, and hurt. I told her I would leave even though I knew the only place I could go would be back to the United States. I went to my room and packed all my suitcases and left everything piled in the middle of the floor along with all the paraphernalia one collects over nine months abroad. If she wanted to put my bags in the street, I just wouldn’t think about it. I didn’t get anything to eat that night and went to sleep.
November 9 – Wednesday
With my belongings still in the middle of my bedroom floor, I went back to the city planning to work in the Library and later find my friends and let them know what had happened at the Signora’s. As I was walking down Via Pandolfini, I ran into Tolis and Eugenio with other friends from the Facoltà di Architettura where they studied. They had decided to put themselves at the disposal of the city government’s central headquarters. There were five of them, Guido, Tolis, Eugenio, Carlo and Donatella. I asked if I could join them and they welcomed me in. They didn’t say very nice things about the Signora. When I couldn’t find them the day before, they had been out trying to get the necessary approvals to have Donatella’s car authorized as an emergency transport vehicle. They said it took almost five hours to secure the ok. There was tremendous need everywhere; shovels, bulldozers, willing hands, food, water, lights, blankets, diapers, medicine, typhoid vaccine, and moving supplies from main distribution points to where they were needed was a challenge. It would have helped if the rain had stopped as well.
Several emergency centers were operating in the city, including the Red Cross in Piazza del Duomo in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Campo di Marte being served by helicopters, and what seemed the main distribution point in the heart of the city, Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria. A relative high point, the Piazza had received only a few feet of water. Hundreds of people had lined up there waiting for food and assistance. Trucks rumbled through the big side gates Palazzo Vecchio loaded with surplus food and supplies. Water was being handed out from the back of a truck by the fountain in the middle of the Piazza. It was an enormous undertaking and I imagined that directing the many volunteers only added to the million of things the authorities needed to coordinate and monitor. The waits were long and people were often confused as they tried to follow instructions. Donatella said her assignments were sporadic; once completed, waiting each time for the next assignment took an hour or two. My friends said they had been sent to a hospital with large bottles of water and to a children’s home on the other side of the Arno with blankets and supplies
My friends said the authorities preferred that people come to Palazzo Vecchio in person or send a family member. The authorities had to monitor the distribution of food and medicine and they were wary of giving out supplies in large quantities to non-official groups. We students talked it over, though, and thought we could be of help by aiding people in a severely stricken neighborhood who were stuck at home, too disabled, sick, or old to walk through impassable streets and reach Palazzo Vecchio. A frail person trying to return home trying to juggle supplies in their arms would be another problem. We also figured that some people stuck in their homes may not have had a friend or relative who could go to Palazzo Vecchio for them. We thus proposed to the authorities at Palazzo Vecchio that we could serve as the “friend or relative,” be their proxy. We focused on a neighborhood about ten square blocks behind Palazzo Vecchio, from Piazza Santa Croce to the river and encompassing Via Ghibellina and Via dei Benci. This was one of the most stricken areas of the city. The water had reached a level of eighteen feet, if not more.
Map I traced for my parents
Donatella’s car wouldn’t be of much use so she left it near Palazzo Vecchio and we split into groups of two. Each team took one or two streets, zigzagged back and forth going from house to house, and called up to people from the sidewalk to ask if they needed anything. We also asked shop owners cleaning their stores if they knew of any sick or old people living in the building that couldn’t get out or that needed medical help. When we found such families, and there were many, we took down their names and what they needed. After we had gotten enough requests, keeping in mind that we could only bring back what we could carry ourselves, we returned to Palazzo Vecchio to fill the requests. Fortunately by this time I had been able to find a pair of boots.
Huge trucks with supplies drove in and out through the great side portals of Palazzo Vecchio. Men with lists in their hands, always seeming to be in constant motion, shouted directions to the truck drivers where they should park and unload and to others gave directions where to stack the offloaded supplies for distribution. I could see a couple of side rooms filled with milk cartons, burlap sacks of bread and medical supplies. Long lines of people slowly made their way inside to the distribution points. Boy Scouts barked out orders so people knew where to stand—here for food, there for medical supplies, and they constantly shouted out warnings to watch for trucks and vehicles. It was an overwhelming scene of enormous activity. Everyone had to shout in order to be heard over the deafening noise.
Each time we returned to Palazzo Vecchio with the requests we had received, it took a lot of time for our credentials to be checked and re-checked. We became frustrated as the process of going back and forth was lengthy and we were limited to only what we could carry in our knapsacks.
November 10 – Thursday
The second day our luck changed. As we neared the corner of Via dei Neri and Via dei Rustici carrying supplies from Palazzo Vecchio, we saw a tall silver-haired man with a beard wearing a bright red sweat shirt. He had been watching us for a while and finally came up and asked how we were doing. His name was Peter Denzer, and he and his wife Mary, both American artists, had lived in Florence for a few years and knew the city well. Peter said they lived on the top floor of Via dei Rustici 6 and that he had convinced his landlord to let them use an empty apartment on the second floor (it would be considered the 3rd floor in the US) as a neighborhood emergency center. Peter and Mary had cleaned the floor of the space and set up some tables and chairs. All that they needed were supplies. Peter believed that a small center set up in this stricken neighborhood would help people who couldn’t make it to Palazzo Vecchio. We agreed to join forces. By now, the authorities at Palazzo Vecchio knew of our small group of students and we hoped that when they learned we had an actual location for a center in Via dei Rustici, they would approve giving us larger amounts of supplies.
It took more long hours of waiting and speaking with different people in charge, but we finally got our big approval. I was left to watch Donatella’s car as men began loading it with blankets, food, candles, and dry clothes. Peter and some of the students continued conferring with officials about which, and how many, supplies, they would give us. It seemed to take forever, but we finally set off with the car. It was so loaded up with provisions, that there was only room for the driver. The rest of us walked back to the center. That first night, the authorities sent six men to go along with us just to make sure that all was in indeed in order. The car was parked as close as possible to Via dei Rustici and then supplies were carried the rest of the way.
Mary had placed a sign, “Centro di Soccorso,” outside the building by the door. To reach the apartment building’s large entrance you had to walk over a large wooden board stretched across a hole in the broken up sidewalk. The wooden plank was covered with oily mud as was the building’s entire first floor. I was posted inside the center and helped arrange the supplies as they were brought up to the second floor. It got dark early and by the time we had brought everything inside, it was almost pitch black, outside as well as inside.
We had to feel our way up the slippery steps with a flashlight and candles to the second floor center. Peter had placed a barrel of water outside the door on the landing so that people could wash off their boots before coming in. We stuck candles on jar tops and placed about four of them on the two flights of stairs leading to the center. The men from the commune stayed late that night and accompanied us as we set out to disperse food and supplies to the people who had made requests earlier in the day.
I was assigned one of the men from Palazzo Vecchio. He had a flashlight to help us see. I carried a half loaf of bread, pasta, a little sugar, 2 candles, matches and one egg carefully wrapped in a handkerchief. We were going to Borgo Santa Croce, a street located halfway between the Church of Santa Croce and the National Library. The street was still impassable even by emergency vehicles and debris was piled waist high. Against the walls of the buildings, tiny footpaths had been dug out to allow some passage. It was still drizzling. One of the worst fears was that if the rain continued, the waters of the Arno could again rise and invade the city. The air was filled with the whine and rumble of bulldozers and trucks moving mud, and the shouts of soldiers stationed in Piazza Santa Croce were magnified in the cold blackness of the city. It was surreal.
We found the address and knocked on the door of the ground floor apartment. An old man and his wife cracked open door and immediately asked us to come in quickly. They led us to their kitchen where a man had just fallen halfway through a hole that had caved in from the weakened floor. He just hadn’t been able to get enough leverage to pull himself out by himself. The man from Palazzo Vecchio secured something under his arms and we all helped pull him out. The man was the couple’s son and fortunately was okay with just a few scrapes. They said that they were all leaving the next day to stay with relatives outside the city. They thanked us for our help and we left the food with them—they had nothing to eat in the house. We asked that if they saw neighbors before they left to please let them know that our center was open 24 hours a day.
I stayed at the center until quite late that night. I was freezing to the bone and my stomach was empty as I walked through the streets headed back to the Signora’s. There still were no streets lights, none in the houses– just the smell of rotting food and dead animals and the sucking noises of mud pulling your shoes off, slopping over the tops of your boots, soaking into your socks. You could hear water gurgling under the streets, perhaps the only warning that you were approaching a gaping hole in the sidewalk. Perhaps the hole was covered with a wooden slat, covered by more mud, or else it gaped wide open and hidden in the dark. On some streets weak light bulbs powered by emergency generators hung every thirty feet or so; on other streets there were none at all. I didn’t have a flashlight, but a couple of times I ran into people who did have one, or a candle, and they said I could walk along with them. The sky was pierced by beacons set up in Piazza Santa Croce. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long at the bus stop.
November 11, Friday
Palazzo Vecchio sent over a big supply of blankets and food to the center and felt they no longer needed to send men to monitor our activities. Our sign outside the door drew more and more people. Food, however, had to be replenished daily from Palazzo Vecchio as so much depended on when supplies came in. We realized that we would have to continue negotiating for support, so Peter and a few others would go there daily. Some neighborhood teenagers volunteered their services as well; they filled knapsacks and helped deliver them to families that couldn’t make it to the center.
Our administration of the center was simple. We set up a file of names of families and their addresses. We placed a small table at the door and everyone who came in gave us their name and what they needed—clothes, food, candles, etc. The only thing we kept a record of was food and clothing, blankets and mattresses and the date distributed. We asked how many there were in their families and if there were any babies. People then moved into the room to the food counter or the tables piled with clothing. We could only give them food to last one day, but people could come back and request food every day. We gave canned milk, if we had it, to families with small children. We had all kinds of clothes, except, perhaps not oddly, very few men’s socks. Socks and trousers were most in demand. People could pick out the clothes they need, entire outfits that could fit them. We had blankets, mattresses, iodine, and bandages. People could also ask for help in cleaning their houses if we could spare someone to help them. We offered the same services to people who could not come in to the center. As long as someone had given us their address, we made daily rounds to houses in the neighborhood.
We divided the sacks of pasta into day proportions; sugar and salt were put in small sacks, everything parceled into small packets. We sorted clothes onto different tables for men, women, and children. One evening, a man who had slipped into a tub of oily water and had no other clothes arrived dripping wet at our door asking for a pair of pants. As people filed in, we gave them a sack of food, candles, matches, and basic first aid supplies—lots of iodine and bandages. Workmen came in to the center with cuts that we were able to clean and bandage on the spot. Workmen clearing the streets would often come in and ask for water or something to eat and we gave them canned meat or other ready to eat food. Children got small bags of candy if we had any, and the canned milk that was saved for them. Now there were nine of us volunteers including the Denzers.
The Signora did not ask me to leave the villa, but she told me I had to move all my belongings from my room on the first floor to a small bedroom in the basement. It was much colder there than on the first floor, but at least I had a place to stay. I was very, very angry, but I wasn’t willing to stop working at the center. It was a true battle of wills. I still could eat at the Signora’s if I came to meals on time and had scrubbed off every single speck of mud from head to toe.
November 12 – Saturday
I don’t know how Peter did it, but he convinced the Order of Malta to send us two doctors with medicines and vaccines. At first, they only could stay for four hours a day, but two days later the two doctors stayed full working days. We now had boxes of vitamin C and other vitamins, pills for bronchitis, penicillin, vaccines for typhoid, small pox, and tetanus and lockjaw shots. Because of the doctors, we changed our sign in front of the building to Pronto Soccorso and it brought more and more people to the center. One unforgettable moment happened when a man came to the center suffering a very bad asthma attack. He had walked I don’t know how far to reach us, explaining he wanted to get something for his family. He couldn’t make it up the stairs and we heard him calling weakly from the first landing for help. We ran to the stairs with a candle and saw him barely able to brace himself against the muddy walls. The doctors went to help him and when he had rested a bit, we brought the supplies he needed down to him and sent someone with him to make sure he made it home safely.
November 15 – Wednesday
It was always good to have a bit of levity. The two doctors from the Order of Malta had put in a busy morning, as had we, when it reached about one o’clock in the afternoon. The flow of people had subsided for a while. We were all famished but the cupboards were pretty bare. We did find a small can of tuna fish and a fairly large loaf of bread and all thought what better way to stretch a can of tuna than to make a creamed tuna sauce to pour over slices of bread. The question was, where would we find any milk? Peter looked at us and our supplies, and said, “Well we are alluvionati too,” so he gave Maria one can of milk to prepare the dish. Unfortunately, no one noticed that the can of milk said “latte zuccherato” (sweetened milk). Only after the pot of tuna and milk was bubbling on the stove and Maria took a taste did she notice the strange flavor. She passed the ladle to me; it tasted terrible. We tried everything to salvage that tuna—lemon juice, vinegar, a can of peas, garlic—but everything only enhanced the garlicky sweetness of the mess. I couldn’t keep a straight face and even though our stomachs were grumbling, we all started to laugh. Some of us ate the tuna; others, including me, just couldn’t get it down. I munched on bread.
November 18 – Friday
Our center still drew a fair number of people, but by this time, supplies from Palazzo Vecchio were irregular and we had to turn people away who were expecting food. In a short time our center had begun to wane with supplies continuing to dwindle; the doctors were reassigned. Peter didn’t want to give up on our center, even though we knew the city’s emergency efforts were in full gear with more and more organized systems in place. Nevertheless, Peter kept sending out feelers for assistance. He asked everybody regardless of affiliation: different political groups, church groups, the American and British consulates, and so on.
November 19 – Saturday
We gave the authorities the records we kept and the names of the families we helped and closed our emergency center. As we packed up, Peter told us he had shifted direction and now wanted to work with social and financial entities focused on providing families with financial assistance needed to rebuild their lives. He was tireless.
I had told Peter earlier that I didn’t have any good pictures to show my parents what the flood had done to the city, so on this last day of the center, he gave me a dozen or so photographs a friend of his, Flavio Fragati, had taken of the city’s streets. Peter had written the captions.
That evening my friends walked me to Piazza San Marco, taking a route I didn’t know. We were talking and trying to make jokes in spite of our exhaustion. As we shuffled through the middle of an empty street, we suddenly heard what sounded like hundreds of tiny tinkling bells. I felt I was kicking something, so I looked down and picked up a tiny metal buckle out of the dust. We realized that we were walking past a shop that made buckles for shoe straps and watches. Thousands of them had been swept into the street when the shop was flooded. We started shuffling back and forth in the street trying to hit as many buckles with our feet as possible to hear that sound. In the quiet stillness of a dark street, it was as though that magical, delicate, tinkling music was announcing something wonderful to come for the city of Florence.
November 23 – Wednesday
With a painful toothache and feet that had started to swell from the cold and dampness— not a good sign–I returned to the United States.