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Floods kill at least 10 in Italy as dozens are rescued from rooftops and trees: "It was a tsunami"

Floodwaters triggered by heavy rainfall swept through several towns in a hilly region of central Italy early Friday, leaving 10 people dead and at least four missing, authorities said. Dozens of survivors scrambled onto rooftops or up trees to await rescue.

"It wasn't a water bomb, it was a tsunami," Riccardo Pasqualini, the mayor of Barbara, told Italian state radio of the sudden downpour Thursday evening that devastated his town in the Marche region, near the Adriatic Sea.

This picture released by Italian firefighters shows an aerial view of the Senigallia area after floods hit the Marche region in central-east Italy, Sept. 16, 2022.
This picture released by Italian firefighters shows an aerial view of the Senigallia area after floods hit the Marche region in central-east Italy, Sept. 16, 2022. Italian firefighters - Vigili del Fuoco via AP

He said the flooding left the 1,300 residents of Barbara without drinking water and with spotty telephone service. A mother and her young daughter were missing after trying to escape the floodwaters, the mayor told the Italian news agency ANSA.

While firefighters reported at least seven confirmed deaths and three people missing, RAI state TV quoted the local prefect's office as saying there were 10 confirmed deaths. Two children, including a boy swept out of his mother's arms in Barbara, were among four people still unaccounted for as of late Friday morning.

Some 50 people were treated at hospitals for injuries.

Many of the 300 firefighters on rescue operations waded through waist-high water in flooded streets, while others operated rubber dinghies to scoop up survivors along their path.

The fire department tweeted that dozens of people who were trapped in cars or had clambered up to rooftops or climbed trees to escape rising floodwaters had been brought to safety. Aerial video posted by the fire department showed the devastation.

Police officers in the town of Sassoferrato recounted the rescue of a man trapped in a car. Unable to reach him, they extended a long branch, which the man grabbed onto and then officers pulled him to safety.

Helicopters were also deployed to rescue seven people in the more remote towns of the Apennine Mountains, which form the backbone of central Italy.

Reuters footage showed the flash floods left a trail of trapped and damaged cars.

"My fruit shop has been turned upside down," Luciana Agostinelli, a local resident, told Reuters.

Floodwaters invaded garages and basements and with its weight and force knocked down doors.

"It was an extreme event, more than an exceptional one,'' climatologist Massimiliano Fazzini told Italian state TV. He said that based on his calculations the amount of rain that fell, concentrated over four hours that included an especially heavy 15-minute period, was the most in hundreds of years.

In a space of a few hours, the region was deluged with the amount of rainfall it usually receives in six months, state TV said.

Some of the worst flooding struck in and around the town of Senigallia, where a river overflowed its banks. Hamlets in the hills near the Renaissance tourist town of Urbino were also inundated when fast-moving rivers of water, mud and debris rushed through streets.

Storms spark climate change debate ahead of elections

The tragedy occurred just days before the Sept. 25 general elections, and condolences for those affected poured in from across the political spectrum.

Front-runner Giorgia Meloni, whose far-right Brothers of Italy party is hoping to become prime minister, offered "full solidarity" with those affected.

The president of the region surrounding Ancona, Marche, is a member of her party.

The flooding came after a drought in Italy, and many have drawn the link with climate change — a subject which has taken a back seat during the election campaign.

"How can you think that the fight against climate change is not the first priority?" said Meloni's main rival, Enrico Letta, head of the center-left Democratic Party.

He said he was "stunned and speechless" at the news from Marche, saying he was suspending campaigning in the region.

Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said its teams were heading to help.

"Very concerned by the growth of extreme weather events," he said on Twitter.

This summer's drought, the worst in 70 years, drained the Po River, Italy's largest water reservoir.

The baking heat has in recent weeks been followed by storms, the water flooding land rendered hard as concrete.

In July, 11 people were killed when a section of Italy's biggest Alpine glacier gave way, in a disaster officials blamed on climate change.

The EU's economy commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni, a former Italian premier, said he shed tears for the victims of the floods in Marche.

"Italy and Europe must take climate change seriously," he tweeted.

Paola Pino d'Astore, an expert at the Italian Society of Environmental Geology, told Reuters the floods were due to climate change.

"It is an irreversible phenomenon, a taste of what our future will be," she said.

AFP contributed to this report.

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