Women with a mission

Women with a mission

On October 25, 2011, a devastating combination of heavy rainfall and seismic landslides hit over 10 towns between lower Liguria and Northern Tuscany (see TF 152). Among those affected the most were the seaside villages of Monterosso and Vernazza, which received more than 20 inches of rain in under four

Thu 10 May 2012 12:00 AM

On October 25,
2011, a devastating combination of heavy rainfall and seismic landslides hit
over 10 towns between lower Liguria and Northern Tuscany (see TF 152). Among
those affected the most were the seaside villages of Monterosso and Vernazza,
which received more than 20 inches of rain in under four hours, about one-third
of the average total annual rainfall. The catastrophic weather claimed four
lives and caused destruction worse than any other disaster, including World War
II. Few in these towns believed they could recover from the damage done that
day. Six months later, spring has brought new life. With help from American expats living in
Tuscany and Liguria, the towns are quickly bouncing back to their original beauty.


After narrowly escaping from her shop during the flash
floods in Vernazza, U.S.-born Michele Lilley immediately began thinking about
the tremendous aid the town would need in the aftermath of the disaster.
Together Lilley and fellow Americans Ruth Manfredi and Michele Sherman founded
the nonprofit Save Vernazza to raise funds toward the 100 million euro needed
to address the damage in Vernazza. Their mission has since expanded to the
longer-term goals of rebuilding the town and hiking trails and promoting sustainable
tourism through education programs that will help preserve the culture of
Vernazza for future generations.


In one village
over, Monterosso, expat residents were having similar realizations: Gina
Pagnella, Kate Little, Christine Mitchell and Megan Phelps started the website
Rebuild Monterosso to garner support from the English-speaking international
community. Rebuild Monterosso is the main English-language point of contact for those who wish
to donate to the City of Monterosso. The major fund-raiser for the town is the
Wall for Monterosso: to remember the disaster and honor all those who help
rebuild the town, donors can purchase stones, starting at 150 euro, and choose
a message that local artisans will hand carve into each stone, which is then
placed in the ‘wall of hope.’


These two groups
of foreign-born women have emerged as the international voices for their
adopted communities. Last month, they hosted travel guide Rick Steves as he
visited both towns. An old friend of Monterosso and Vernazza, Steves has joined
them in their mission to encourage travel to Cinque Terre. On his website he
has links to both organizations and has permanently reduced the price of the
Rick Steves’ 2012 Heart of Italy in 9 Days tour to support their efforts.


Despite the
international news coverage of the disaster, many are unaware of the progress
that has been made since, or even that a disaster befell Cinque Terre. This is
a problem. Some who have heard only about Vernazza being ‘wiped out’ may decide
not to visit. Others, who did not know about the disaster, visit the towns so
vaunted for their charm, and find them unsightly.


Tara Farrell, an
Irish student studying in Verona, had no idea about the disaster until she
arrived in La Spezia, a nearby town: ‘It was weird since it was such a big deal. You think we
would have heard about it.’


With the help of
Rebuild Monterosso and Save Vernazza, the local councils of both towns have
launched campaigns to inform visitors about the disaster and give updates on
the reconstrution project. Throughout Monterosso, for example, laminated photos
featuring ‘before’ shots have been placed in the locations they were taken
prior to cleanup.


The lack of
knowledge about the event especially struck a cord with Yana Pietras, an
American studying in Florence and founder of the organization Students for
Cinque Terre (S5T). Over the years, Pietras has visited the Cinque Terre more
than 14 times with her family and has remained close with Vernazza locals her
age. When word got out that Pietras was somewhat of a Cinque Terre ‘expert,’
her fellow students started asking what had happened and if it was still safe
to visit. This, combined with her deep love for the towns where she spent her
summers as a child, sparked the idea for S5T. ‘It is important that people know
that Cinque Terre is still a great place to visit and that the best way they
can help is by supporting the local economies that are dependent on tourism,’
she explains.


Pietras now works
with Save Vernazza to promote Cinque Terre to students and universities in
Tuscany and help raise funds. The S5T Facebook page has been ‘liked’ by
students from across Europe and the United States. The organization hopes to
expand the reach of S5T and eventually create student volunteer programs as
part of its sustainable tourism mission.


The courage and
resilience of these communities is clear from their incredible turnaround. This
optimism and the tremendous generousity of local and international donors has
helped the towns ready themselves for the summer season. ‘We have come so far
in such a short time,’ Lilley said pointing to the main square that was once
filled with mud and cars more than 2 meters high. Six months later, the piazza
is again packed with tourists and locals, even on a rainy day. ‘We will keep
moving forward.’


Lilley encourages
people to come to Vernazza and experience its special charm. ‘Hike the upper
trails through the vineyards and olive groves, admire the stunning sea views,
eat the local food and drink the local wine. That is how you can help


Elba island and Aulla of the region of Tuscany were also severely damaged by
the floods last fall. Through funds raised by the region and loans from the Tuscany
Trust Foundation, reconstruction efforts are currently underway to secure the
towns and address their most pressing needs. Enrico Rossi, president of the
Tuscan Region, recently announced that the goal is to re-open most sites within
six weeks and that all repair efforts be completed by the end of the summer.


more information on traveling to Cinque Terre and how you can contribute to the
relief efforts, visit www.rebuildmonterosso.com and www.savevernazza.com.


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