I woke to the sound of miniature cement trucks and jackhammers. These were happy sounds to me, as physically, Monterosso and Vernazza are being put back together after the recent devastating flood. Socially, too, it’s been a time of reconstruction for both communities. Being small towns, they were rife with cliques and ancient grudges. With the challenge presented by the flood and recovery period, locals marvel at how everyone came together. Today, many locals enjoy better relations with old enemies, but there is a new divide: between people who joined in the community-wide effort, and those who only took care of their own business needs (or even left town during the chaos). In both towns, while a large percent of the businesses were essentially destroyed, lots of people and hotels that were on higher or luckier ground came through unscathed, losing only their water and electricity for a while. Some of them ignored their business needs and became heroically involved. And, as it goes in small towns, those who didn’t will long be remembered for turning their backs on neighbors in need.
People commented on how, having experienced this tragedy, they have a new empathy for distant people dealing with similar natural disasters. Others commented on how, now, every time there’s a big rain, anxiety sweeps through the community.
The tourist business in 2011 was very strong. October 25 was at the end of the season, when locals were ready for a much-needed winter break. While the flood hit at the perfect time from a business point of view, locals, already exhausted after a very busy season, had to immediately plunge into a nonstop rebuilding period, pushing to be ready for the 2012 season.
For travelers wondering if it’s OK to travel to the Cinque Terre, here’s my take: Three of the towns were unaffected (Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia). They have plenty of tourism and don’t need your business as much. I’d choose between the two flood-ravaged communities. Monterosso is completely ready. Vernazza, with a few hotels and restaurants already open, expects to be ready for prime time by June. Crews have worked tirelessly to get the trails put back together and the best hikes are wide open. This is a great time to visit, to both stoke and celebrate the recovery, and to be one of the first to enjoy the charms of either town, post-flood. There’s a camaraderie in the air and an appreciation of tourists that is palpable. Even in late April, over the course of several days, I saw countless travelers enjoying their visits as they would if there had been no flood.
The people of the Cinque Terre are being taught a tough lesson. It’s their beautiful land that brings the tourists. With the affluence brought by tourists, locals abandoned their land — leaving the vineyards unplanted and the centuries-old dry-stone terracing to crumble — for less physically demanding, more profitable work in tourism. (Grapevines are lighter on the land and have far-reaching root systems to combat erosion. Traditional vintners keep the stone terraces in good order.) But after a generation of neglect and abandonment (while the Cinque Terre enjoyed and profited from tourism), the land was washed by violent weather into the towns. It’s like nature was speaking: There will be no tourism to harvest without proper stewardship of the land. The question that remains: Will the lesson be learned, remembered, and heeded? (Tomorrow: the last in this three-part flood series.)
Groups of expat American women (who fell in love both with the towns and their men) are helping organize relief and communications in the aftermath of this disaster Rebuild Monterosso and Save Vernazza. For all the latest in both towns, see these websites or reach them through our Cinque Terre News page.