Rome under the Snow, Part II: The Real Story Behind the Polemics

Snow storms hit Rome yesterday, February 11th, but polemics raged all week. Here's the snow storm hitting my street:

And here's how Villa Volkonsky, the residence of the British Ambassador in Rome, looked hidden behind a double curtain of trees and snow:

Yet, more than the snow, the talk on Italian television and the media was not the snow but polemics surrounding the emergency.

Here's the story behind the polemics.

It's a fact (as I documented in my previous post) that the snow emergency last week caught the city totally unprepared. The images of Rome waking up the following morning under the snow were beautiful, but the beauty couldn't hide the fury of Roman citizens. They had been caught in traffic the night before during a home rush hour that in some cases lasted...eight hours! The next day they were stuck at home, public transport had broken down, even the metro was inaccessible and the supermarkets were empty. No milk, fruits, vegetables or fruit. Unthinkable!

Whose fault was it? How could a modern metropolis of three million inhabitants be caught unprepared?

All eyes accusingly turned to the the Mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno:

Il sindaco di Roma, AlemannoImage via Wikipedia

He should have warned the citizenry! He should have called the army in, he should have done something! Yet that first night, as the snowfall intensified all he had done was limiting himself to issue a warning that snow tires or chains were obligatory. The next morning, when 50 cm of snow had covered Rome, there was no one to shovel the snow, no means to clear the streets. In the afternoon, only a handful of people were used to clear the access to the football stadium, while the rest of the city remained paralyzed. 

The Mayor of course had a ready rebuttal: it was the fault of the "Protezione Civile" - that's the Italian state agency that is supposed to be responsible for the protection of citizens and organizing emergency aid in cases of natural disasters. The Protezione Civile, created 30 years ago, has earned high marks handling Italian natural disasters, most recently during the earthquake that hit Aquila in 2009, the deadliest earthquake since the Irpinia one in 1980. It left over 300 dead, 65,000 people were made homeless and thousands of buildings in several medieval towns, in particular the Aquila, were damaged .

So Alemanno passed the bucket and accused the Protezione Civile. A lot of Romans did not appreciate. The Protezione had done its duty: it had given ample warning of the impending disaster. It was up to the Mayor to take the necessary measures.

Say that again? Wasn't preventing disasters and organizing emergency aid the job of the Protezione Civile? Wasn't that what it was supposed to do, what it had been created for?

Apparently not. Following the Aquila episode, the Protezione Civile's mandate had been reduced from organizing and providing aid to merely coordinating it. And as anyone who's been involved in emergency aid knows (I have been, I know - in my work for FAO, I travelled to Kosovo, Ethiopia and Eritrea), with coordination you don't get very far in an emergency. To do things you need means, and you need them fast.

But the funds and power to obtain means had been taken away from the Protezione Civile. It was now up to mayors and local authorities to obtain funds and means - and if the town was too small, or like Rome lacked funds (too much spent on public concerts rather than on serious stuff), then there was only one way out: seek help from the Ministry of Interior.

Imagine that, having to go through a long-winded bureaucratic procedure to obtain the means to address an emergency!

That means you wait two, three days or more before you can get any help. Result: not only Rome suffered (but fortunately for Romans  it turned out to be a minor inconvenience), but people outside Rome suffered more, especially those living in small towns and villages in the mountains.

Imagine, numerous villages around Italy, especially in the Abruzzi and in Basilicata, found themselves totally isolated for days - up to 5 days and more... going without electricity and water! And in sub-zero temperatures! And with food reserves growing scarce!

That, as Guido Bertolaso said on his blog, is unacceptable for a modern, advanced democracy. Bertolaso? He's the previous head of the Protezione Civile (from 2001 to 2010),  now retired - he was forcefully removed from his job, more on that in a minute.

So the polemics swelled and Alemanno, the Mayor of Rome, pulled his act together and when a warning came that a second snowfall would hit Rome by Friday 10th, he was ready. Salt and sand bags had been brought, shovels distributed, trucks and other means mobilized, as necessary.

Indeed, on Saturday morning, I woke up to the sound of shovels raking the streets. Here are the men in orange suits, armed in shovels, in front of the British Embassy:

Yes, not working very hard. Five minutes later, they were leaving, shovels on their shoulders:

They were right of course, the snow was already melting. I thought I'd join in the effort and took the shovel the city had given us after the first snowfall:

I never thought I'd be shoveling snow in Rome one day! But if you look closely at the photo, you'll see there was no real need for it anymore. Indeed, a few minutes later, this is how the Church of San Giovanni looked, splendid under the (customary) Roman sun, with only wet streets as a reminder of what had happened:

Back to normal? No, the polemic was raging and I wanted to know what was the real story behind it. I asked around and dug into recent history.

This is what I found.

It all began after the Aquila earthquake. A nasty polemic developed around Bertolaso who was at the time the head of the Protezione Civile and considered a hero by many. Berlusconi, then Prime Minister, had asked him to move the G20 meeting, originally intended to take place in La Maddalena to Aquila in July 2009 - a foolish idea considering the region had just been struck by an earthquake and the priority should have been on reconstruction and giving homes to displaced people. But Berlusconi wanted to show the world what a brilliant manager he was. And he counted on Bertolaso's exceptional organizational skills.

But something went wrong. Maybe hubris, maybe the lax approach that was a mark of Berlusconi's management style, maybe irresistible temptations, maybe the little time available before the G20 meeting, who knows - no matter the reason, the fact is that Bertolaso ended up being accused of squandering state funds on dubious contractors.

The scandal at the time was enormous. For many, it looked like a national hero was unfairly under attack. But since there were growing proofs of wrongdoing, Tremonti, then Finance Minister and a moral purist, took a major decision: he presented to Parliament a law decree (the "Multiproroghe") that, among other things, was designed to take away from the Protezione Civile any funds or power for implementing emergency aid and left it with only an ill-defined general "coordination" role.

The law was passed in February 2011 and Bertolaso went home (actually he had left before).

With the present snow emergency, this law decree caused a mess: nobody knew who was supposed to do what, and with whose funds. Many people were left with the impression that the Protezione Civile was still the one in authority, when it no longer was. That had been clearly the misconception the Mayor of Rome had labored under - him and probably many others.

To put an end to the mess, on 8 February, the Monti government published a decree (here's the link) that clearly spells out who does what at every level of government: regional, provincial and local and this at the behest of the Protezione Civile.

So is the Protezione Civile back in power? Not quite: the decree only refers to the "exceptional weather adversity of February 2012". So what will happen with the next emergency, say next month or a year from now?

Your guess is as good as mine...

Italiano: Guido Bertolaso a Viareggio in segui...Bertolaso - when he was still running the show (Image via Wikipedia)

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