Rescuers with sniffer dogs searched Friday for several people missing after the mud swamped entire villages and suburbs of Messina on the island's eastern coast, Mayor Giuseppe Buzzanca said. Rescue efforts were hampered by the fact that many roads were impassable and the terrain still unstable with continuing rains.
Residents and firefighters used shovels and bulldozers to clear the mud, which in some areas reached as high as the door handles of cars and homes.
At least 20 people were killed, officials in the prefect's office said. Another 40 people were hospitalized, many of them transported by sea, civil protection chief Guido Bertolaso said. Authorities gave varying numbers for people missing, ranging from five to 20.
Several hundred homeless were seeking shelter in area schools and gyms, Bertolaso said.
The government in Rome declared a state of emergency for the area, freeing funds for emergency relief and reconstruction.
Officials blamed the overnight storm, which unleashed some 25 centimeters (9 inches) of rain in just three hours. But they acknowledged that deforestation and unregulated development had weakened the soil and contributed to the mudslides from Messina's surrounding hills and cliffs.
They were Italy's deadliest landslides since 1998, when a rain-drenched mountain near Naples unleashed a torrent of mud that submerged villages and killed 150.
Among those killed around Messina was a man who was submerged and suffocated in the mud on the main piazza of a southern suburb, the ANSA news agency said. Another man drowned in the flooded cellar of his country home, it said.
The civil protection chief urged authorities to take action against uncontrolled deforestation and construction, often practiced by organized crime syndicates.
"Either we take on the job of securing all the nation's territory, or these tragedies are destined to be repeated," Bertolaso said.
Italy's leading environmental group Legambiente demanded more investment in construction oversight.
"Our country is paying a high price for having devastated the land with enormous and uncontrolled" construction, Legambiente President Vittorio Cogliati Dezza said in a statement.
Messina was wiped out once before by a 1908 earthquake and tsunami that killed some 84,000 people.