Among the must-see sights for tourists coming to Bologna is the so-called finestrella, the “little window,” a small opening in a wall of the very central Via Piella. From that vantage point, one can enjoy the view of the Moline Canal that creeps between the houses – a part of the town with a distinct Venetian feel and which reveals one of the peculiar urbanistic features of the capital of Emilia-Romagna. Bologna is built on top of a maze of canals and streams, largely underground, that only occasionally rise up to the surface and can be seen among the city’s alleys. They are a blessing in normal times, because their water is used for filling reservoirs, watering fields and generating electricity. But they turn into a source of danger during a cloudburst like the one that hit Emilia Romagna over Tuesday and Wednesday.
As the night fell on Tuesday, May 16, Bologna was aware that it was about to face an exceptional event. It had been known for hours that the weather disturbances that had devastated Romagna would move westward over Emilia and the Apennines. Peak rainfall was predicted for the night, a prediction which proved accurate. Schools and universities had been closed and the city council gave orders to evacuate basements and the second floors of some streets in the east of the city. However, none of this was enough to stop the damage from the impending flood.
Between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m., the Ravone flooded. The water pressure had been building up over the course of hours, and the water eventually broke through into the premises of a nail salon. What is normally a quiet stream flowing underneath the shops had become a raging river, tearing up pavements and making its way down the streets. The water rushed onto Via Saffi, an area full of businesses that is usually teeming with people. Now it found itself underwater for the third time in a month: the first time in the brief flood of May 3, the second just two days before. The muddy waters kept advancing for hundreds of meters. The municipality had brought in sandbags to act as makeshift levees, but the flood carried most of them away.
“We’ve been seeing these scenes for a month now, but never at such levels as tonight,” a young couple tells us. Their apartment is only a few meters from the store where the creek broke through. “We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of the flood. We had our bags already packed to escape.”
In the afternoon we meet another resident. He is an elderly man, and we find him wrapped in a yellow raincoat as he checks the sandbags protecting his garage. “The authorities didn’t prepare anything in front of our house. They thought the water would stop before this point,” he tells us. What about the makeshift levee? “We built it ourselves tonight when we noticed the water was starting to get into our basement.”
Early at dawn, the emergency grows bigger in scope. Two canals have overflowed in the suburbs between the city and the countryside: the Navile and the Savena. The former flooded the Corticella neighborhood, the latter rose up between the buildings on Via del Paleotto. By late morning, the rain is still heavy. Via Saffi is still a river and the municipality issues a landslide alert. Several landslides are recorded, and the authorities begin to close the roads leading from the city to Bologna’s famous hills. Many of them cut across Villa Spada, one of the city’s largest parks. At this point in the year, it’s usually full of young people and families. On Wednesday it was deserted, manned only by civil defense.
From downtown came the most viral images of the day. The residents of Bologna, who have been holed up at home much of the time, between the closed schools and remote work, shared them throughout the morning. They show Piazza Maggiore, the seat of City Hall and the Basilica of San Petronio, with water rushing in. This is Bologna looking like Venice during high water. There are no flooded rivers to be seen, nothing comparable to the deluge on Via Saffi; but the images hit very hard.
By 10 a.m., the flooded streets emptied out, leaving mud and debris behind. Between lunchtime and early afternoon, the rain subsided until it stopped. The fear began to melt away. Many put away their phones, which they kept refreshing for constant updates, and took up shovels instead. Among those shoveling the mud away on Via Saffi, there is a widespread sense of annoyance. “There are blockages building up on the canal. This had been pointed out to the municipality for some time. We hope it will finally be a good time for them to intervene,” the couple we spoke with before tell us. “Now the administration has to take responsibility, make everything safe,” stresses the man in the yellow raincoat.
Meanwhile, weather bulletins are announcing more rain is on the way. Bologna is closing down what it can and goes back to building emergency levees, this time higher and spread more widely, in the hope they will be of some use. Whatever is going to come the next night, nobody can say that it was unexpected.