“A genuine privilege to be caught in a disaster with her”

Tour guide Karin Kibby

Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the devastating floods and mudslides that ripped through the Cinque Terre villages of Monterosso and Vernazza, burying their streets under as much as 12 feet of mud and debris. I have written about this disaster before, and more recently about each village’s remarkable recovery. Today I’d like to tell you a different side of that story — what happened to a group of travelers we had in Vernazza and Monterosso on that day one year ago, and how their tour guide’s hard work and focus helped them get through the crisis safely.

Our “Heart of Italy” tour’s free day in the Cinque Terre is normally devoted to hiking the scenic trail that connects the five coastal villages running from Riomaggiore to Monterosso. On the morning of the disaster, because of rain, guide Karin Kibby (pictured) and her group of 28 hopped on the train from Monterosso to Vernazza, where Karin arranged a tasty cannoli treat for everyone. As the rain poured down more heavily and ankle-deep water began rushing down Vernazza’s main street, some of the group decided to remain in Vernazza to wait out the storm, while the other 20 or so, along with Karin, chose to take the short train ride back to their hotels in Monterosso.

As is common with our tours staying in the Cinque Terre, this group was split between two hotels — the Villa Steno, up the hill from the train station, and the Pasquale (owned by the same family), located closer to the beach. By the time the train pulled into Monterosso, water was rushing down the hill fast and deep enough to block the path to the Villa Steno. Everyone ended up wading “downstream” to the Pasquale.

As the rain kept coming, stronger and stronger, Karin and her soaking-wet tour members sat in the hotel’s breakfast room, watching the water rise higher outside. Before long, a stream pushed its way in through the doorway, flooding the room. The group moved up, first to the stairway, then to the hotel’s upper floor. The power went out, and everything was plunged into darkness.

As tour member Paul Moss put it, “There’s something about extreme stress that can undo a person’s language skills.” The hotel’s staff, frantically coping with a situation that had gone from inconvenient to dangerous, gave up on English, and spoke with Karin in rapid-fire Italian. Their first concern, according to Paul, was something he’ll never forget: “None of us knew how bad the situation could get, but it was deteriorating rapidly and it had to be heartbreaking for the owners of the hotel, watching their investment and community being devastated. And at that moment they turn to Karin and tell her they are worried about not having enough clean sheets for everyone who will need to spend the night in shared rooms. All they cared about was the welfare of their guests! If that isn’t a WOW moment, I don’t know what is.”

The group was cold, wet and stranded — without power, food or plumbing. Half of them had none of their belongings, as their bags were still up the hill at the Villa Steno. And four were still somewhere in Vernazza. It was a situation ripe for fear, frustration and anger, but Karin’s leadership made all the difference. As one tour member put it, “Karin was literally our ‘port in the storm.’  I know how stressful our situation was for her. I believe that what kept us all calm and in control was our confidence in her abilities.”

Throughout the night and into the next morning, Karin kept in touch — in-person and via cell phone — with police, emergency workers, people at the train station, and our office in Edmonds, relayed constant updates to tour members, and made sure people had everything they needed. Early the next morning, she even led a commando-style mission of several volunteers, climbing over fences and rooftops (evading police who might delay them) to retrieve tour members’ luggage from the dark and abandoned Villa Steno up the hill. Once they had what they’d come for, they could more boldly (and safely) return via the streets, which were about six feet higher than normal, packed with mud and debris. Then, discovering they hadn’t gotten quite everything, Karin scrambled back up the hill.

Soon after returning, Karin gathered everyone up and led them to a special evacuation boat, which she had learned about as a result of her constant contact with everyone who could possibly be of help to her group. The boat, packed with shivering, exhausted travelers and locals, made its way through the debris-filled sea to the Vernazza breakwater, where the four “lost” members of her group (who’d made it through their own ordeal) awaited rescue. They were thrilled to see Karin at the bow of the approaching boat, waving her arms to welcome them.

One tour member summed up his feelings about Karin Kibby this way: “Karin is simply amazing — helpful, knowledgeable, smart, interesting, clear, personable and friendly under normal circumstances — calm, level-headed, even-tempered, confident, and decisive when everything is going to hell around her. I’ve known very few people like her in my life, and it was a genuine privilege both to have her as a tour guide, and to be caught in a disaster with her.”

One year later, Vernazza and Monterosso are nearly back to normal, the Villa Steno and Pasquale hotels are filled with happy guests, and Karin Kibby is a hero to a special group of Rick Steves travelers — including Rick Steves.

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