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Commentary. A 200-meter chasm opened up in the heart of Italy’s Renaissance city. The mayor blamed “human error.”

Florence sinkhole cleaned up, but mockery continues

At least €5 million in damages, according to initial estimates of the technicians. A gaffe broadcasted worldwide, with cameras focused on the 200-meter abyss which opened at dawn on Lungarno Torrigiani, very close to the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery, on the southern bank of the Arno River.

Fortunately there were no deaths or injuries. By dinner time, the water service was reconnected in homes and firefighters were removing the last car engulfed in the progressive collapse of the road surface.

But the controversy is going to last — longer than the repairs that Mayor Nardella hopes to see completed by late summer. Because Publiacqua is in the middle, the limited private-public company (40 percent owned by ACEA), that has the highest water rates in the country and since 2009 was a fief of the former mayor, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

“And there are the chubs,” joked a boy wading up to his ankles, remarking on the fish on the street in a video that went viral in Italy. At that moment a small stream of water flowed away at the end of Lungarno Torrigiani, on the corner of Via de Bardi, and taking the road downhill to the latter. After the first reports were sent to Publiacqua and the municipal police, technicians and workers intervened to identify and repair it, and around 3:30 a.m. the work was done. Everybody went home.

Alessandro Carfi, a Publiacqua spokesperman, summarized it thus: “First, we recorded a drop in pressure in the network and a leak in a pipeline under Via dei Bardi that, following protocol, has been closed. After, it was verified that the pressure returned to normal levels. For us, the intervention was completed.”

According to firefighters, the first fault was a blown manhole, leading Publiacqua to close the water supply. According to some insiders, this might have produced an increase in pressure on other pipelines: a “water hammer,” as technicians called it.

At dawn, the crack came.

A hotel concierge told to TG3 Regional news that in Lungarno Torrigiani, about 100 meters from the first intervention, the roadway sinks gradually to the right side, on the Arno’s shoulders. That’s where about 20 residents’ cars were parked. With no apparent damage they ended up in the pit nearly 200 meters long by seven meters wide and three and a half deep. At that time, nobody was walking around, a bit of good luck in the disaster.

“After 6, we recorded the second anomaly,” explains Carfi of Publiacqua, “the one on the 70 cm in diameter pipe, the backbone of the left bank. We do not know whether there was a rupture of the pipe that caused the erosion of the soil, or if there was erosion of the soil over time, with the breakdown that broke the pipe.”

The first hypothesis is favored by a picture that has also become viral: “This flaw in the pipes,” sums up the committee against the TAV tunnel, “was present for some time, and is confirmed by the presence of plants grown on the wall of the Arno parapet, near to the pit. On the shoulder away from the pit, there is less vegetation present. The water has soaked the land contained by the parapet and has increased the burden, this has also resulted in the collapse of the parapet itself, which sheeted, causing the hole on the road surface.”

Mayor Nardella, however, talked of “human error” upon visiting the site. “It cannot be said that it all happened suddenly, because if 200 meters of embankment slides, it means that for a while there has been an accumulation of water.”

Alessandra Biserna, of the National Council of Geologists, stated: “The collapse appears to be imputable to the broken line. It is unlikely that it happened so suddenly. Maybe some mild signs were present that could have been identified by a trained eye. It would be important to go back to the pressure data on the pipeline. I think there is a monitoring system on water distribution. I hope that such a reconstruction is feasible.”

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