The Sarno and Quindici flood

La frana di Sarno, in provincia di Salerno, del maggio 1998

On May 5, 1998, heavy rain struck the province of Salerno. Beginning at two o'clock in the afternoon, over 140 landslides hit the municipalities of Quindici, Bracigliano, Siano, San Felice a Cancello, Sarno, and other towns in the areas of Salerno and Naples, spilling over 2 million cubic meters of material. 160 people lost their lives, 137 of them in Sarno. There were hundreds of injured and thousands of displaced people. The event represents Italy's most severe hydrogeological disaster in the last 50 years, after Vajont in 1963 and Stava in 1985.

At 17.30 on May 5, the prefecture of Salerno, responsible for the coordination of the province's civil protection, was focused on Bracigliano, Quindici, and Siano, where the situations seemed more critical and where the mayors had already ordered the evacuation. In Sarno, the alarm was not triggered, and around 18, one of the heaviest tragedies ever faced by our country began. The police forces attempted to help the population evacuate the affected areas, but at 8 p.m., the situation worsened: a large wave hit people, houses, and cars. At 11.45 p.m., Sarno was destroyed by another landslide, which hit the town at 50-60 kilometers per hour.

The whole country helped. The search for the missing was carried out with the maximum involvement of people and means, and Franco Barberi, undersecretary at the Ministry of the Interior in charge of Civil Protection, personally followed the activities. Several operational centers were set up to deal with the emergency. The search and rescue activities ended on May 8th with the rescue of a boy buried in the mud, the last of the survivors of the catastrophe.

The State of emergency for Sarno was declared by a Decree of the President of the Council of Ministers on May 9, 1998, and extended several times. The ordinance n. 2787 of 1998 nominated the President of the Campania Region as delegated commissioner, the commissioning structure which, by implementing the plan of structural interventions, predisposed in the involved municipalities an "Interprovincial emergency plan - risk of flooding" activated by a hydro-pluviometric monitoring system that in the following phases - territorial control, alert, pre-alarm, and alarm - activated the resources of civil protection.

Regarding monitoring and surveillance of hydrogeological events, the flooding of Sarno has brought about a major change in the approach to risk, previously characterized mainly by structural interventions and rescue and assistance activities.

The Decree-Law n. 180 of 1998, known as the "Sarno Decree," later converted into Law n. 267 of August 3, 1998, has determined a decisive boost to both the perimeter activities of the hydrogeological risk areas and the strengthening of the monitoring and surveillance networks.

Before this event, Campania's monitoring network counted on a few telemetered rain gauges, none of which were located in the Sarno area. Today, many telemetered rain gauges provide real-time data to the Regional Functional Centre and the Central Centre of the Civil Protection Department. Therefore, the Sarno law began the construction of the Network of Functional Centres, supporting the strengthening of the national hydro-meteo-pluviometric monitoring network and the construction of the national meteorological radar network.

Photo: Firefighters at work after the landslide of Sarno on May 5, 1998 / The National Fire and Rescue Service