Women with a mission

Expats unite to help rebuild Cinque Terre

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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 Vernazza.’

Both 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.

For 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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