Don & Phyllis

We left feeling deep respect for the people of Vernazza. We wish them Godspeed in their recovery. They radiate God’s grace already.

The rain grew heavier as we nibbled cheese to the sounds of Puccini arias and the ducks quacking in the stream below our ground floor apartment windows. We were relaxed; reading passages from The Elegance of the Hedgehog and fiddling with a miniature travel puzzle. The apartment was only three years old with walls of ancient rock framed with perfectly run white plaster; a cantilevered bathroom vanity surrounded with opaque glass; hardwood and marble flooring below the translucent glass tiles of the countertop backsplash in the up-to-date kitchen. We crossed a footbridge each time we left “our home” at the bottom of the four story building to get to the street running down through the village into the harbor. We were scheduled to leave in several days, after a languid sunny month in Vernazza, one of the five Cinque Terre villages on Italy’s Ligurian coast.

About an hour after we noticed rain accumulating outside our entryway, our host knocked on the door, asking us to quickly pack a small bag and move to a room on the floor above. From our heightened vantage point we watched as the babbling brook became a raging river, first filled with rocks and mud, then with cars, vans and buses from the parking lot farther up the road. The village’s ruptured five hundred gallon propane tank was swept into the harbor after covering the lower village with a yellow haze. By nightfall the footbridge had been destroyed by vehicles and rocks washing over and beneath it, and the building’s entrance porch with the only exit door from the four sleeping rooms on the floor we now occupied was sheared away, leaving us stranded unless we leaped into the maelstrom to be swept toward the sea.

The entire roadway became the river. We were in typhoon-like weather. Landslides from the mountains surrounding the tiny valley filled the original river bed and earthen dams seemed to burst periodically as pressure mounted, sending down mud, rocks and water at speeds too fast to estimate, with noise too terrifying to forget. The cannonade of rocks bombarding the building’s foundation and lower floors shattered our nerves. Waves of mud and water crested as much as a foot above our second story room’s window sill. Water inside our room kept rising.

Earlier we had barricaded the main hall entrance into the second floor with a chest. Now we tipped the sleeping room’s particle board wardrobe onto its side atop the bed, added a few pillows and blankets to sit on, barricaded the door to the room and waited. We watched the brown water cover then float the bed. As the wardrobe’s joinery came apart we placed all the flat panels and the broken doors we could find on top of the floating bed, but the platform was uneven, and our weight pushed the bed down to the floor, leaving us waist-deep in cold muddy water. By then the exterior hallway door had given way; the windows in the room beside us had broken open; we expected our room’s water level would soon be level with the screaming torrent outside. Several times the water receded, two or three feet, only to rush in again with increased force. We prayed together, talked about what our lives together had meant, and sent signals with our LED flashlight. It was pitch black, except for an ever-so-important floodlight, still shining intermittently from a building across the road.

About midnight men wearing orange wetsuits with aqua tanks, along with local men in orange rain gear knocked on the window to our room. The window had held. Water in the room had remained lower than the water in the hall. Outside, the bottom of the riverbed was now level with the second story window sill. Although it was still raining, the storm seemed to have ended as quickly as it had begun. We were led to a church uphill and my wife was carried over the rocks because she had no shoes. We were given hot tea, dry clothes, and we tried to get some sleep.

With daylight more orange men arrived on helicopter ropes. And that afternoon remaining tourists were evacuated south to La Spezia, helped across the broken harbor to the heavily loaded boat by local men having lost everything. Neither roads nor trains were functioning. There was no electricity. There was no potable water. But people have lived in the Cinque Terre for well over 1000 years. Their family and community roots go deep into the rocky soil. Three days after the tragedy Italian TV showed footage of heavy equipment helping men with mattocks and shovels beginning the long process of recovery.

There is no way my wife and I can adequately express our gratitude to the people of Vernazza, and especially to our hosts, Annamaria and Moggie Meregoni, who cared for us even as their lives and livelihoods were falling apart, with their families and friends in such terrifying peril. My wife and I left Vernazza in borrowed clothes and with little luggage, merely two of the 2.3 million people visiting these five tiny villages each year. We left feeling deep respect for the people of Vernazza. We wish them Godspeed in their recovery. They radiate God’s grace already.Show more
Don & Phyllis
Spokane, WA USA

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