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Italy's ancient cave city of Matera left in desperate need of emergency funding

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Italy's ancient cave city of Matera left in desperate need of emergency funding
A street in the Unesco city of Matera, Basilicata. Photo: DepositPhotos
10:54 CET+01:00
The Unesco-listed city of Matera, currently European Capital of Culture, suffered extensive flood damage as severe storms swept across Italy last week, but it's not yet known if the city will receive the same kind of emergency funding promised for Venice.

Local residents and business owners are still cleaning up debris and mud and counting the cost of the damage in Matera this week, after muddy floodwaters cascaded through the town's famous sassi.

 

 

“We've never experienced anything like this before,” Silvia Mastrangelo, the owner of one holiday rental property in the lower part of the sassi, told The Local. “I don't know when we'll be able to reopen so we've had to cancel all our bookings, and it's really demoralising.”

READ ALSO: It's not just Venice: The extreme weather lashing all of Italy

Her ground-floor rental apartment was “totally ruined”, she said, describing damage to neighbouring shops as well as some of the dozens of nearby rock churches, some of the treasures that earned the area its Unesco heritage status.

The town's ancient dwellings cut from rock, dug into a steep hillside overlooking a ravine, are now mainly given over to tourism. Many have been converted into luxury hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and bars. Others still remain empty, while just a few are residential properties.

The homes of people living inside Matera's Sassi. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

This is the second time the Sassi has suffered flooding this year, which Matera's mayor Raffaello De Ruggieri blames on "overbuilding" in the hills above the ancient city, as well as the abandonment of a unique system of underground cisterns, once used to supply the city with water as well as protecting it from flooding.

De Ruggieri stressed that roads in the centre are now open and it's safe to visit the area, where the economy relies heavily on tourism.

READ ALSO: Matera, Italy's city of caves, contrasts, and culture

But while the danger may have quickly passed for visitors, Silvia expects residents will be counting the cost of the storms for a long time to come.

The cost of the damage to Matera was estimated at €8 million by De Ruggieri, who said the storm “created difficulties that are hard to overcome with the ordinary budget of the city council.”

He commented on Monday as Matera's council formally approved and filed a request for a state of emergency to be declared in the city.

A state of emergency declaration allows residents and business owners to claim vital funding that will help them rebuild.

In Pictures: Venice left submerged as exceptional tide sweeps through canal city

In Venice, residents whose houses have been hit "would immediately get up to €5,000 in government aid", while "restaurant and shop owners could receive up to €20,000 each and apply for more later," the city's mayor said, after the Italian government pledged €20 million in funding for the city.

A state of emergency was declared in Venice last Thursday, as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited to assess the damage and meet local business owners, even while the high tides continued to come in.

Donations have also been coming in from abroad to help rebuild Venice following the historic floods. The mayor tweeted details of a bank account set up for contributions, many coming from past visitors left horrified by images showing the damage done to the canal city's unique businesses and priceless artworks.

While shocking footage of the flooding in Venice received global attention, the storm damage suffered in other towns and cities is just as devastating for residents.

“We're not expecting international campaigns, but some recognition from our own government would be good,” said Silvia. “We haven't heard anything yet.”

“Basilicata is not a wealthy region”, she added.

Matera. Photo: Deositphotos

The neighbouring southern region of Puglia also filed a request for the declaration of a state of emergency.

“We have asked to be included in the govenment decree that will soon be issued for Venice,” stated the president of the Puglia region, Michele Emiliano, on Thursday.

“We have already made a request for 50 million euros, more or less the actual cost of the damages suffered on the coast and also inland, where the tornadoes and storm surges have caused serious damage.”

As storms continued to lash Italy, the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples also suffered severe damage from stormy seas.

Ischia's mayor Enzo Ferrandino requested the declaration of a state of emergency, urging: "I hope the state gives our area the same attention that it reserves for other parts of Italy."

WATCH: Southern Italy battered by storms, floods and tornadoes

The announcement of state funding for Venice, along with international media coverage and global funding campaigns, triggered the anger of those who say northern areas are treated favourably by governments.

Italy's Naples-born foreign minister and leader of the populist Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, commented on Facebook: "Other cities and regions have been overwhelmed by bad weather. I think of Basilicata with Matera... I think of Puglia, Calabria, Sicily. And nobody talks about it.”

The perception of a north-south divide leaving poorer southern regions struggling is nothing new in Italy, and here in Puglia and Basilicata at least, it's still going strong.

“It's not a surprise that money goes straight to the north,” said Gianni Sisto, the owner of a farm in the Bari province of Puglia who said “almost all” of his winter crops and much of the olive harvest had been ruined last week, his fields left badly eroded by floodwater after months of unusually dry weather.

"But we're all being affected, and a lot of people around here need help."

Flooding in olive groves in Puglia last week. Photo: Coldiretti

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