Italians trying to prevent a modern Pompeii
By Ellen Hale, USA TODAY
SAN SEBASTIANO AL VESUVIO, Italy — Carlo
Tarallo lives in the last house on one of the last streets of this
aptly named village, with a view to die for. So close does he sleep
to the most dangerous volcano in the world that when he looks out
his bedroom window he can't see all of it. Just a slice of verdant
"There are great benefits to living under
Vesuvius," jokes Tarallo, 32, whose family home lies in the zona
rossa (red zone), the area at highest risk from the volcano.
"You smoke as much as you want, drink as much as you want. Why not?"
(Related graphic: Vesuvius' danger mounts)
Concerned that too many people now crowd the
sides of the active volcano, authorities here have launched a bold
plan to prevent a repeat of the catastrophic explosion that wiped
out Pompeii and smothered thousands of its residents nearly 2,000
Authorities hope to thin the ranks of residents
so they can be evacuated when Mount Vesuvius erupts again. They are
doing this by offering cash incentives to move, demolishing the
illegal buildings that have sprouted on its flanks and establishing
a national park at its top.
It's only a matter of time before it does
erupt, scientists say.
"It won't be tomorrow, it won't be next month,
and maybe it won't be next year. But it is overdue," says Giovanni
Macedonio, director of Vesuvius Observatory, the institute
responsible for monitoring the volcano. When it blows, Macedonio
warns, it could be with the power of "tens of hundreds of atomic
Vesuvius last erupted in 1944. Lava destroyed
some orchards and homes and 26 people were killed, although most of
those died from heart attacks. Residents put pots on their heads to
protect against rocks shooting through the air, but the rumblings
soon stilled. Vesuvius has been quiet since. So quiet, in fact, that
Pope John Paul II visited Pompeii Oct. 7 to pray for peace at a
shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
During the volcano's 60-year slumber, however,
sprawl from nearby Naples has spilled out; nearly 600,000 people now
live in the 18 towns in the shadow of the volcano. Combined with
Vesuvius' volatile nature — its eruptions are characterized by
explosions that rocket out deadly gas and dust, not just slow-moving
floods of lava — this population density makes the volcano the most
dangerous in the world, scientists say.
As a result, it also is the most monitored
volcano on the planet, with a belt of 30 stations and a network of
other detection devices peppered around its base, according to
The devices can warn of a potential eruption
within a few months, but no earlier. Studies show that Vesuvius has
a major eruption on a cycle of every 200 years or more; the last was
in 1631, when about 3,500 people were killed.
After years of warning by concerned scientists,
government officials have finally taken heed. In 1995, they created
a 25,000-acre national park on the uppermost parts of the volcano to
halt further building. This year, park officials were empowered to
tear down illegal construction within its boundaries.
About 800 structures — from restaurants and
resort villas to house additions such as balconies — have been built
in the park without permission, estimates Amilcare Troiano,
president of National Park of Vesuvius. So far, 30 have been
removed. (Volcanoes in the USA, Troiano points out, are
intentionally buffered by sparsely populated national parks.)
In early October, the country's highest court
struck down a popular appeal to award amnesty to those who have
constructed illegally in the park and in towns in the high-risk "red
zone" of the volcano.
More than 50,000 people sought the amnesty,
which would have made their constructions legal. (Officials estimate
at least twice as many people have constructed illegal homes, hotels
and other buildings without permits or on land they don't even
The amnesty appeal was backed by the national
government. That's an indication, local planners say, of how
controversial their efforts are to crack down on population growth
in the area and also of the divisions between Italy's national
government and the regional government in Naples.
"It can be very dangerous. They all hate us,"
After receiving a few death threats at the
start of the demolition program, Troiano and his staff were assigned
carabinieri — police — to protect them. The threats have
since diminished as local residents have begun to accept the
But by far the most ambitious aspect of the
Vesuvius emergency plan is the effort to relocate many of the area's
residents. Last month, regional officials announced they would pay
up to 30,000 euros — about $36,000 — for each family unit that moves
outside the red zone. The old homes are meant to be destroyed or
converted into bed and breakfasts for tourists coming to visit
Vesuvius. The grants must be spent on a new home.
The goal is to reduce the population by as much
as 150,000 within 15 years, according to Marco Di Lello, director of
urban planning for the Campania Region, home to Vesuvius. So far,
about 1,000 people have requested applications; the deadline for
this first year of funding is Nov. 15.
"We're not saying everyone should leave," Di
Lello stresses. "This is mainly aimed at young people, even renters,
to get them to set up households elsewhere. Or to older retired
people who might want to move anyway."
It would take two weeks to evacuate the 580,000
people now living in the highest risk zones, according to Di Lello.
By contrast, only eight to 10 days would be needed to evacuate
400,000. Plans have been made to move people to other regions in
Italy, where they would likely have to live for several months, or
perhaps even permanently.
Getting everyone out safely and quickly may not
be the biggest headache the government faces, though. Scientists now
know that volcanoes send out signals — rumblings and magma fractures
among other symptoms — that warn of a potential eruption in time to
evacuate threatened residents.
The precursors apparently were evident in 79
A.D. when, in the most famous volcanic eruption in history, Vesuvius
exploded and sealed Pompeii in a 10-foot blanket of ash and
Herculaneum in a landslide of mud.
At least 3,500 are estimated to have died. The
ruins of the two towns, which archaeologists only began excavating
in the 1800s, have produced a bonanza of information on Roman
civilization as well as poignant images of mothers, babies and
couples at the moment of death. (The event was the first volcanic
eruption to be described in detail, by scholar Pliny the Younger,
whose uncle perished in it, according to experts.)
But if the precursors can signal an eruption,
they don't guarantee one. In fact, there's a 50% chance an eruption
won't occur. And therein lies the hitch: What if everyone is
evacuated and Vesuvius doesn't erupt?
In 1984, Italian officials evacuated 40,000
people in the Campi Flegrei area near Naples when a volcano there
threatened to erupt. It never did.
"Imagine evacuating 580,000 people and nothing
happens," Macedonio says. "Get it wrong, and it's the end of a