The Floods of Florence 1966

In 1966 serious floods occurred in Florence and IHC was involved in giving relief holidays to some of the children whose lives had been affected.   Although the city did in fact may a remarkable recovery, at the time it made a great impact on people in Britain partly  because of the loss of art works especially in the area around Santa Croce.  This temporary account gives some idea of the scale of the disaster.

    The Arno is not a large river and it is difficult for those who know Florence to imagine the chaos caused by the flooding. In fact the city is built on a flat plain beneath the Appenines and the river, which runs quite near its centre, is bounded by walled embankments very similar to those on the Thames in London. The numerous bridges, and in particular the "Ponte Vecchio" which is built from end to end with three storey high houses, acted as highly effective dams, such that the river did not merely overflow, rather it was forced under enormous pressure into the surrounding streets. Contemporary photographs record the fantastic damage which this force created. Swirling currents bore uprooted trees, flotsam and jetsam of all kindsĄ furniture, household and shop goods, and endless upturned cars, while the stunned and terrified inhabitants stared helplessly from windows in the upper storeys of their houses. The Arno has flooded on numerous occasions, moreover the level it had reached on November 3rd 1966 had caused considerable alarm, but the fact that the greater part of the flooding had occurred between 4.30 a.m. and 8.00 am on the following morning when most of the inhabitants were sleeping, accounts for their apparent unpreparedness and the astronomical loss of property which occurred. In places the water was sixteen feet deep, and the palaces and cathedral of the city centre were inundated to the depth of six feet. Florence became an immense muddy lake of seven thousand five hundred acres. That evening it stopped raining and the waters began to abate leaving behind a thick coating of foul stinking mud, but the loss of life, and the destruction, particularly to shops and to the works premises of skilled craftsmen, not forgetting the irreplaceable artistic losses in the city of Brunelleschi, Giotto, and Cimabue, will make this flood an undying and horrible memory.
    For six weeks following the flood in Florence last year, there was no light, no gas, no drinking water or telephone. Reserve food had to be rushed to the City and although no-one actually starved, nearly everyone was hungry. The economic life of the City came to a standstill - no wares in the shops, the banks closed, the children unable to go to school, lawyers beseiged and doctors overwhelmed. A fishmonger could not sell anything for two months, as the people were terrified to eat suspected fish. Fiat have made arrangements to replace the ten thousand cars destroyed, but if the tourist trade is affected, as it surely must be, the people will face ruin next winter, It was naturally difficult to find anyone with the time and energy to select children for I,H.C, holidays, but during a visit in February contact was made with a number of influential people following which fifty schools were approached, with the startling result that four hundred children were provisionally put down to come. The children who will be finally selected are likely to be those whose homes were flooded, those whose parents lost their livelihood (even if only temporarily) , and those whose parents lost both home and work, Florence, before the flood was a prosperous City with a very high standard of living. There are no slums, and the people have a tradition of pride. A good knowledge of English is vital for everyone since their wealth depends on the tourist trade. The opportunity to stay in England was therefore acclaimed with delight and mothers are starting now to clothe their children well, out of respect and gratitude to the British families. Prospective foster parents will be visited personally in order to explain the unusual features of the Florentine situation
    The holiday developed into one of the most complicated tasks that IHC had undertaken, chiefly because efforts had to be made to organize the selection and documentation of 115 boys and girls who had suffered during the floods, with no existing organization or body in Florence. Thanks to the public spirit and initiative of Professor Arcangeli, the children duly arrived in two groups of 60 and 55. The British escorts came from Fleet, Chichester, Brentwood, Birmingham, Barnes, Wellingborough, Croydon and London, they carried out a first class job.   Eleven local Committees received the children and raised £2,000 for their fares.   Following the visit to England the following letter was received from Florence:- "Dear Miss McEwen,    As parents of the Florentine children who have been on holiday in England, we wish to thank, through you, the Organization which has looked after them with so much care, and the British families who gave them hospitality.   The difficulties caused by the floods to so many families of Florence have, at least, once again proved the existence of human solidarity. You have been able to give such a proof to so many parents badly hit by the disaster, finding in your heart affection for our children as if they were your own.   We are all united in thanking you for everything. As parents we understand all you gave to these children, not only from a materialistic point of view but also by taking them as an integral part of your family. Many thanks, (signed) Burigana"

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