Sicily storms kill 17, sniffer dogs search rubble

MESSINA, Italy — Rescue workers and sniffer dogs on Friday searched for survivors in the rubble of two buildings that collapsed in torrential rains in Sicily, where at least 17 people died and 35 were missing.

Ten were seriously injured and some 415 people were homeless after up to 250 millimetres (10 inches) of rain fell in the space of a few hours on Thursday, emergency services spokesman Giampiero Gliubizzi told AFP.

Two buildings collapsed in a mudslide, causing many casualties, he said, adding that sniffer dogs were searching for victims in the rubble.

Messina city officials said they feared a heavier toll as some parts of the southern island remained inaccessible.

Some 60 people were ferried to area hospitals aboard dinghies because the roads were impassable, while those with serious injuries were evacuated by helicopter.

"Most of the dead and seriously injured were in two buildings that collapsed in mudslides," Gliubizzi said, adding that several hundred people suffered some form of injury.

The toll "is sure to rise," Sicily's regional presidency said in a statement, adding that the damage was "incalculable" and calling on Rome to take "preventive measures so that such disasters do not recur."

Mudslides included one that stretched over 3.5 kilometres (two miles), cutting off communications and sweeping away dozens of cars between Messina and several coastal towns south of the city in the northeast of the island.

The government has declared a state of emergency in the region.

"We are working to make sure we get to all the villages including the ones that are cut off," said Guido Bertolaso, the head of Italy's civil protection service, in televised remarks.

He said rescue workers responded quickly to the disaster, deploying the first dinghy at around 2:00 am Friday.

Witnesses said that in some towns such as Molino, south of Messina, the mud was up to seven metres (23 feet) deep.

"Two floors of my building collapsed and completely disappeared," said a shocked survivor who lived on the third floor. "Everything happened very quickly," he told the ANSA news agency.

Said another survivor: "I didn't understand what was happening. I was at home and everything started moving. Then I found myself surrounded by rubble."

Bertolaso arrived earlier Friday in the mainland city of Reggio Calabria which is separated from Messina by a narrow strait.

The Sicilian capital Palermo in the northwest was also affected, with motorists stranded in their cars and a hospital's emergency services flooded.

The road south to Catania was cleared in both directions by the end of the morning.

Several local officials said the disaster was predictable, citing inadequate storm drainage systems.

Bertolaso himself joined in the criticism. "Obviously the emergency services cannot resolve the problems of hydro-geological imbalance created by illegal constructions," he said.

"The area is already very fragile, and we have seen total negligence, especially with the lack of drainage," said Gian Vito Graziano, president of the regional association of geologists.

Environmentalist Giulia Maria Mozzoni Crespi said, for her part: "The tragedy of Messina? Everything is down to negligence and a lack of concern for the environment."

Sicilian politicians "don't think about the landscape because they want to help their friends who want to build," said Mozzoni Crespi, head of the Italian Fund for the Environment.

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