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Originally published Monday, January 9, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Cinque Terre towns struggle to rebuild after storm

Vernazza and other towns of the Cinque Terre in Italy struggle to rebuild.

The New York Times

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VERNAZZA, Italy — When UNESCO added the Cinque Terre, five medieval coastal towns perched along the Ligurian Coast, to its World Heritage List in 1997, it cited "the harmonious interaction between people and nature to produce a landscape of exceptional scenic quality."

Nature broke that pact Oct. 25 when a violent downpour unleashed unprecedented fury on the town of Vernazza and the surrounding hills here along Italy's northwestern coast, provoking dozens of landslides that swept a sludgy river of earth, trees, cars and sundry debris onto the small seaside settlement.

The bodies of three townspeople swept out to sea by the storm were recovered weeks later in French coastal waters.

Vernazza caught the brunt of the storm, but the picturesque walking paths that link the five villages, an excursion that draws at least 1 million visitors a year were washed out in several spots and are now off-limits.

Locals old enough to remember World War II said the storm had caused even more devastation to the area, said Michele Sherman, a New York native turned Vernazza resident and a supporter of one of several fundraising efforts, Save Vernazza, recalling that day's tales of heroism and destruction.

Two months along, much of the mud and debris — which reached some 13 feet, just below the height of first-floor balconies — has been cleared from Vernazza's main street that only a short time ago was a lively succession of restaurants, bars and shops doing a brisk tourist business.

Barely a quarter of the town's 600 residents have returned to their homes, but the alleys resonate with the sounds of heavy machinery, drilling and hammering. Matteo Barletta, an architect charged with mapping the damage done to the town's buildings, said that several teams were at work on various aspects of the reconstruction and that a list of priorities had been set.

"The bakery, pharmacy, tobacconist, bank, fish shop and butcher, these are to reopen to reactivate the town," he said.

Said Mayor Vincenzo Resasco, speaking in his office high on a hill, where it was spared from the waters: "There's a lot of work to be done because Vernazza is still not secure. The territory isn't in the condition to withstand even normal rainfalls.

"The real problem is that if we don't get money soon, we're going to have to stop," he said, adding wryly, "and there isn't a lot of money in Italy these days."

Changed by tourism

Tourism changed the Cinque Terre, and not necessarily for the better, said Claudio Frigerio, a retired union worker and local activist who has long lobbied for a more environmentally conscious approach to the area's development.

While tourism has been a lifeline, the crowds sometimes give the walking paths a rush-hour intensity. Tour groups and cruises can swell visitors here to around 2 ½ million a year, too many for critics.

Angelo Maria Betta, mayor of Monterosso al Mare, the other Cinque Terre town badly damaged by the storm, cannot wait to reopen businesses for the spring season.

"If we don't fix the Cinque Terre, we're going to make a hole in the local economy that's going to be hard to fill," he said. Officials say the paths linking the towns will be open by Easter, and they vow to restore the towns as quickly as they can.

"Vernazza will be rebuilt as before," promised Resasco. "I have made a pact with citizens to make the town better than it was. It is a message of hope, not resignation. We are from Liguria, and we are stubborn."

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