Italy puzzles over how to save 700,000 people from wrath of Vesuvius

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Vesuvius is considered the most dangerous volcano in the world, due to the large population in the surrounding area. File photo: Carlo Raso/AFP
13:38 CEST+02:00
After the area labelled 'at risk' of an eruption from Mount Vesuvius was expanded earlier this year based on scientific recommendations, local authorities said on Thursday that "most" of the updated evacuation plan was ready.

The southern Campania region and Italy's Department of Civil Protection are drawing up a plan to get 700,000 people out of harm's way in the case of a volcanic eruption.

Vesuvius is "a problem of gigantic proportions" De Luca said, "but we have to equip ourselves to be prepared."

The emergency plan is almost ready (an initial draft can be viewed here, in Italian) and will be finalized by the end of the month, Regional president Vincenzo De Luca and the head of the Civil Protection Department, Fabrizio Curzio, told media on Thursday.

Expansion of the at-risk zone

All 25 towns in the so-called 'red zone' are set to present their plans within the next two weeks, and the plan for the seven new 'red zone' towns, in the Campi Flegrei between Pozzuoli and east Naples, is currently being drawn up, De Luca said.

He added that before the end of October, the region will single out 'priority areas' within the red zone which would be evacuated first.

The red zone is the area at highest risk if Vesuvius were to erupt, due to destructive pyroclastic flows. 

Last year, experts recommended the expansion of this high-risk area from 18 towns and 550,000 residents to 25 towns and 672,000 residents. 

The entire area would not be in immediate danger in the case of eruption, as the flows would likely go in a single direction. However, it's impossible to predict this in advance, so all local residents must be prepared to act quickly. 

De Luca also announced that the towns would receive extra funding from the region, to improve infrastructure and help spread awareness of the emergency protocol.

It would only be evacuated if the highest of four alert levels was activated; the levels are basic level, attention, pre-alert and alert. In the pre-alert stage, those staying in hospitals and care homes would be moved, and monuments and other heritage would be secured.

A previous escape plan was drawn up in 2007, however local residents complained to the European Court of Human Rights about its inadequacy, and last year, geological experts recommended significant expansion of the 'at-risk' zones.

Buses, boats and trains

But just how do you get everyone in those towns out safely? It doesn't help that much of the affected zone is farmland, with rural country roads.

The plan aims at evacuating the entire 'red zone' in just 72 hours, using 12 hours for organization, 48 hours for moving, and an extra 12-hour 'security margin'. As well as the 375,000 registered cars in the area, the region is ready to put 500 buses and 220 trains into action each day of the evacuation period.

Each of the 25 regions has been 'twinned' with another area of Italy, where evacuated residents would be hosted. Different towns would be asked to use different modes of transport depending on their destination; for example, Pompei residents would take boats to Sardinia, while Neapolitans would board trains to Lazio.

Local authorities must prepare

The boundary changes also saw the expansion of the yellow zone - the area at second greatest risk, due to falling ash. Again, only a certain area would be affected (around ten percent of the whole zone), but depending on the severity of the ash falls, air, road and rail traffic are likely to be affected too. 

The yellow zone now comprises 63 municipalities, and three Neapolitan districts.

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The president of Italy's National Council of Geology, Francesco Peduto, said: "There is a thought-out plan from the National Civil Protection with previsions for the most likely scenario," but added that he feared "but those who would have to put this plan into action - that is, the local civil protection from the different towns involved - don't study [the plan] and may not be in a position to put it into action."

De Luca said that the plan would only work "if the towns themselves put in extraordinary effort, starting with the schools, where there should be informative brochures."

"Alarmism is pointlessm" he added. "We have no particular problems right now, but it is our duty to be prepared. Either you can pretend not to see challenges, or you can face them head on - even the most difficult.

"We should take advantage of the fact that Vesuvius is currently dormant, that it's giving no sign of movement, in order to prepare ourselves to cope with the emergency, should it wake up."

Italy's government set up a relocation programme for those living near Vesuvius in the early 2000's, offering money for families to move out of the danger zone - but this has not proved popular. 

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