Heaviest rainfall 'since at least 1790' causes apocalyptic scene in Sicily
Described as a “bomba d’acqua” or “water bomb,” the torrential rainfall that the city of Palermo on the island of Sicily received triggered massive flash floods.
Dramatic cellphone footage showed emergency crews searching for people thought to be trapped in cars near a flooded underpass, as the city of Palermo, located on the Italian island of Sicily, experienced what the mayor there described as the heaviest rainfall in more than 200 years on Wednesday.
The scene in the Italian city was apocalyptic as vehicles were seen tossed about and floating in the deep floodwaters. Some motorists escaped their vehicles and were seen trying to swim to safety. In the video, sirens and car horns can be heard blaring as the camera pans left and right surveying the mayhem. Driving rain can be heard along with intermittent claps of thunder. On the overpass, cars were stuck in a traffic jam overlooking the horrific scene unfolding below.
Firefighters and emergency crews reportedly spent all night swimming through the waters, in search of people who might have drowned in the flooding. Although initial reports said that two people had died in the floods, Palermo police and firefighters said on Thursday they could not confirm the deaths. Two small children were hospitalized and were being treated for hypothermia, according to Italian news agency ANSA.
The magnitude of rain that fell in such a short span of time -- especially given that rainfall is uncommon during this time of the year in the area -- triggered chaos.
Gabriella Gangi, the woman who recorded the footage, said she could see people swimming everywhere, as they fled their cars and tried to make it out of the water.
"So much fear and so much damage caused by flooding," Gangi said. "Cars destroyed, children pulled out from submerged cars. Rescue operations are not yet completed. Police and firefighters plunged into the mud to rescue trapped people in their submerged cars."
In another video posted on social media, a motorist could be seen sitting on top of a car that was almost completely submerged in the floodwaters, trying to make a call on a cellphone.
Rain began falling on Wednesday afternoon and increased in intensity for several hours, creating floods in all major roads of the Sicilian capital.
"According to weather observations from the area, 3.90 inches of rain (99.2 mm) fell over the area in just three hours," said AccuWeather Meteorologist Maura Kelly, explaining why drainage systems quickly became overwhelmed. "In addition, any rain that fell in the mountains to the south of the city could rush to lower elevations, adding to floodwaters inundating the area."
Although rain is not common during this time of the year in the area, as "typically less than 0.40 of an inch (10 mm) is reported throughout the month of July," the storm conditions quickly started to brew as the summer moisture and humidity fueled showers and thunderstorms across southern Italy, Sicily and the Tyrrhenian Sea throughout the afternoon, Kelly said.
Cars are piled as others remain trapped in water and mud after an underpass, seen in the background, flooded on Wednesday in the Sicilian city of Palermo, southern Italy, as seen early Thursday, July 16, 2020. Firefighters were draining the underpass and searching for possible missing persons. (Vigili del Fuoco via AP)
The greatest problem and the reason the storm led to catastrophic consequences, according to Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando, was that the city was not prepared for such a magnitude of rain, as no warnings or weather alerts were issued by the civil protection agency in advance.
"Over a meter of rain has fallen in Palermo in less than two hours," Orlando said, according to the English-language news magazine Wanted in Rome. Orlando said the outburst of precipitation was "the most violent rain in the history of the city since at least 1790, equal to that which falls in a year."
Orlando said that if the city had received a weather alert in advance, "procedures would have been activated which, despite the extraordinary nature of today's events, could have mitigated the risks."
By Thursday, sunshine had returned in Palermo along with warm temperatures, but tepid floodwaters and vehicles strewn about by the raging deluge remained, according to photos released by Vigili del Fuoco, Italy's emergency management agency.
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