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The Arno River Basin is located in Florence, Italy. Over the last two thousand years there have been numerous floods encountered by this River. (Alexander, 1993). The most recent flood encountered by the Arno River was the flood of 1966. This was also the most damaging flood recorded.
While just over one hundred deaths were declared, the city of Florence experienced an economic loss of forty billion dollars. (Done, 2011). This loss was primarily due to the large scale damage caused to the art and architecture around the city. Many of the pieces produced during the early and high Renaissance eras had been damaged, some of them permanently.
Even though floods along the Arno River were relatively frequent, the city of Florence seemed unprepared for the flood of 1966. Several human errors could be attributed to the large scale damage caused by the flood.
Figure 1 showing the Arno River flowing through Florence.1
The Arno River flood, occurring at approximately 43o47'N, 11o15'E, was one of the most damaging economic disasters since 1965. (Done, 2011).
Historical records, from the time of the Romans to more recent years, have shown that floods along the Arno River are not uncommon. The most recent, major floods along the Arno River occurred in 1117, 1333, 1557, 1666, 1844 and more recently, in 1966. (Alexander, 1993). By these dates, floods along the Arno River are very likely to occur between every one to two hundred years. The city of Florence has survived at least sixty two floods along the Arno river within the last two thousand years. (Alexander, 1993). The Arno River flood of 1966 is the most recent of these floods.
The Arno River is a two hundred and forty one kilometer long river which begins on Monte Falterona in Casentino, passes through Florence and flows into the Liguarian Sea near Pisa. Figure 2 illustrates the location and flow of the Arno River in Italy.
Figure 2. Diagram showing the flow of the River Arno from (A) Monte Falternoa to (B) Pisa.2
The historical Arno River flood in Florence, Italy began on November 3rd, 1966 and lasted until 8:00 p.m. the next day. The flood itself had been the worst seen in the city since 1557, four hundred and nine years earlier.
The trigger for the flood was attributed to the intense rainfall beginning around noon on November 3rd and lasting until the evening of the following day.
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Figure 3. Graph showing the average annual rainfall in Florence, Italy.3
Prior to the heavy rainfall, the latter days of October left the soils along the headwaters of the Arno River saturated with melting snow. (Hyndman et al., 2010). This contributed to the intensity of the floods since the saturation of the soils left them unable to absorb any of the rainfall or allow transport of the water into the groundwater table or other reservoirs. If the soils had not already been saturated with the melted snow, it most likely would have been able to act as a mediator by absorbing some of the rainfall and slowly directing the water to a nearby reservoir.
As previously mentioned, it is known with certainty that the city of Florence has been known to experience high intensity floods over the last two thousand years. (Alexander, 1993). Prior to 1966, the most recent, major floods occurred in 1117, 1333, 1557 and 1666 and 1844. However, there had been several instances where flooding along the Arno River had cost several people their lives and damaged numerous properties between these major flood periods. (Krech et al., 2003). In essence, the regions along the Arno River appear to be fated to undergo a major flash flood every other century with frequent minor flooding between these periods. This had been proved over a two thousand year period to the present day.
Knowing this, the regions along the Arno River appeared very unprepared for flash floods by the shear disruption of the floods alone. Two hydroelectric dams located upstream of Florence had not had their rivers dredged. (Krech et al., 2003). This significantly reduced the amount of water the dams were able to store and increased the flow of water downstream causing more destruction. In addition, the Penna hydroelectric dam, located forty eight kilometers upstream, had accumulated a significant amount of water behind the dam gates in the latter weeks of October, prior to the floods. (Krech et al., 2003). This water, coupled with the significant amount of precipitation which initiated the flood caused a considerable build of pressure behind the dam. Because of this, the gates were opened and the water was allowed to flow through the dam. (Krech et al., 2003). Downstream, approximately six kilometers upstream from Florence, the Levane hydroelectric dam was now under a large amount of pressure because of the water released by the Penna hydroeleric dam. Again, because of the considerable amount of pressure the dam was under, the gates were opened and the water was allowed to flow down the Arno River towards Florence. (Krech et al., 2003).
In such a case, it is easy to see that the hydroelectric dams should have been constantly releasing the water accumulated in October instead of holding it behind the dams. Had this been done, then the holding capacity of the dams could have been higher reducing the amount of flooding in Florence. As seen previously in Figure 3, November also has the highest amount of rainfall in Florence. This is an additional reason for constantly releasing the water behind the dam gates in the latter part of October. Because of the higher amount of rainfall expected in November, this significantly reduces the holding capacity of the dam in the event of a flash flood. Furthermore, it has already been mentioned that the rains and melting snow in October had completely saturated the soils along the Arno River basin. (Hyndman et al., 2010). The saturated soils would be unable to absorb any water falling on it. This reinforces the point that no water should have been held behind the dam gates during October since the city of Florence would have been unable to defend itself in the event of a flash flood. This demonstrates significant human error resulting in a substantial amount of loss for the city of Florence and for Italy itself.
Because the flash floods are relatively frequent, it would be in the city's best interests to invest in a flash flood plan that will ensure the safety of it's people, their property and possessions and the priceless art and architecture found all around the city itself.
Human and Economic Losses
During the two days of the flood, the water level rose approximately six meters in height. (Hyndman et al., 2010). In total, one hundred and twelve deaths were declared. Of these, thirty two occurred in Florence. (Alexander, 1993).
At the time of the flood, there was no warning system in place and people were not alerted to the Arno River flooding. (Malguzzi et al., 2006). Had there been a warning system, the amount of deaths could have been significantly reduced since these people would have been able to prepare for the flood by finding appropriate shelter for the duration of the flood. With that being said, the flood was relatively predictable due to the severe rainfall that the city was experiencing. This occurrence alone should have been enough to alert the public that a flood was possibly imminent and that they should take the appropriate precautions.
While the magnitude of the lives lost may not have been the largest natural disaster in history, it was unquestionably one of the costliest disasters in history. Florence, most noted for its contribution to the Renaissance era, now risked the chance of having most of that history destroyed. According to David E. Alexander:
"In the centre of Florence tremendous losses were sustained to the priceless heritage of art, sculpture, books, artefacts and architecture, especially as the floodwaters contained a great deal of harmful mud, debris and heating oil."
The city of Florence during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had produced a great number of priceless art around the city. To the present day, these pieces have only become more and more valuable. Global Trends: Facing Up to a Changing World placed the Arno River floods as the eighteenth most costly disaster, since 1965, with an approximate economic loss of forty billion dollars. None of this amount had been insured. This resulted in a total GDP loss of 2.7 per cent in 1966 alone. (Done, 2011). While the flood itself is listed as the eighteenth most costly disaster since 1965, it is the fifth most costly flood disaster. Table 1 below lists the world's most costly flood disasters since 1965.
Table 1: The world's costliest flood disasters since 1965
Natural Disaster Year Approximate Economic Loss ($ Billion) Approximate Insured Loss ($ Billion) % GDP Loss in Disaster Year
Yangtze River Floods, China 1998 50 5 3.0
Great Floods, USA 1993 50 5 0.3
River Floods, China 1996 50 0 2.8
Eastern Floods, China 1991 40 5 3.6
Arno River Floods, Italy 1966 40 0 2.7
Table 1 shows the five most costly flood disasters since 1965. (Done, 2011).
While Florence is a metropolitan city, it cannot be said that its population density or land use policy was the cause of the high magnitude economic loss. This loss can be mainly attributed to poor planning and construction of structures along the river to lessen the impact of sudden, high intensity floods.
Flood Mitigation and Prevention
Because of dense population of the city of Florence, it is quite a challenge to devise strategic, mitigative solutions to prevent large scale damages to the city.
During the sixteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci proposed a solution to the frequent floods in Florence. His solution was to re-route the Arno river around Florence using a large retention basin, a canal, a tunnel and floodgates. (Krech et al., 2003). At the time, his proposal was ignored. Today, such an idea would not be feasible largely due to the population and construction density Florence has seen since the time of Leonardo da Vinci. However, portions of his ideas may still be useful.
A large retention basin which can be used in times of floods and flash floods would benefit the city of Florence. Ideally, the water should only be diverted to this basin when the water in the Arno River threatens to rise too high. Alternatively, additional smaller dams can be built upstream of Florence to assist the Penna and Levane hydroelectric dams. During periods of heavy rainfall, these dams will be able to hold some of the water and decrease the pressure build up behind the walls of the two hydroelectric dams.
In addition, the soils surrounding the Arno River Basin should be highly permeable with a high hydraulic conductivity. In cases of severe rainfall, the water would be able to easily flow through the soil and be discharged into retention ponds. These ponds, located around the city, can hold the water until the Arno River itself is able to drain the water.
A warning system should also be put in place in Florence and other areas along the Arno River prone to flooding. Because buildings and houses in Florence are generally very old and the congestion of the parts of the city would make construction almost impossible, it is not feasible to build houses and other buildings in Florence on stilts. Stilts can significantly reduce the amount of lives lost and damage done to property when put in places which experience frequent flooding. However, because this is not a feasible idea in Florence, it makes the need for a warning system imperative. Local radio stations, television stations, meteorological stations and workers with access to the Arno River dams and levees should all cooperate to provide the people of the city of Florence and others living along the Arno River in flood hazard zones, the most up-to-date information on the risk levels of flooding.
Furthermore, educating the locals about the Arno River, it's carrying capacity and what conditions heavy rainfalls are likely to cause to the river itself is vital. By educating the people prone to the destruction of the flooding, the possible onset conditions of a flood will be easily recognised. This can prove to provide these people with sufficient time to seek the appropriate shelter for the duration of the flood.
Over the last two thousand years, the city of Florence has experienced large scale, disruptive flooding every one to two centuries with smaller scale flooding between these periods. While these floods are smaller, the damage caused is still significant to the people living in Florence.
While these floods are relatively predictable due to their frequency, the city of Florence was appeared very unprepared for their largest ever flood recorded in 1966. The flood, caused by heavy rainfall over a two day period on November 3rd and 4th, accounted for almost a third of the city's annual rainfall.
The major source of severity of the flood was due to human error caused by accumulation of water behind the hydroelectric dams resulting in the inability to hold the rainfall which caused the floods. Another source of contribution to the flood was the saturation of the soils around the Arno River Basin caused by the absorption of the October rains. The inability of the soils to hold any of the rainfall further increased the severity of the 1966 flood. Both of these conditions coupled with a lack of warning system resulted in the largest flood disaster recorded in Florence.
In 1977, two bridges along the Arno River were lowered to allow a larger discharge capacity. The tresholds were each lowered by one metre, increasing the discharge capacity of the river from 2900 m3/s to 3200 m3/s. (Sehmi, 1997). Unfortunately, the new discharge capacity of the river is still not high enough in the case of a flood that is of the same magnitude as that of 1966, which had a flow estimate of 4300 m3/s. In addition to the increased flow rate of the river, several catchments and reservoirs were created. (Sehmi, 1997). This will allow retention of some of the water from the flood and decrease the amount of flow in the Arno River reducing the possibility of a severe flood. In 1986, Italy published a Civil Protection Plan. The purpose of the plan was to offer suggestions, guidelines and models for testing and utilising emergency plans. (Sehmi, 1997).
All of these solutions show that there is some effort to decrease the amount of damage caused by the frequent Arno River floods.