It was an experience that was to have a great influence on my life because it helped me to make a definite decision to do what I could to assist people less fortunate than myself

An account by Umberto Mazzone (I)

I was a student at the Fermi Science Liceum in Bologna in November 1966 and was 15 years old. I heard about the flood in Florence on the radio, the television and from the newspapers. In those days the ORUB student union organization still existed in Bologna and, with the help of the City Council, it organized a small expedition of two coaches to Florence.

With some friends from the Liceum, I managed to join them, by saying that I was older than I actually was. We set off one rainy Sunday from Piazza Maggiore in Bologna and arrived via the motorway in Florence, escorted all the way from Bologna by two traffic police on motorbikes, who were half frozen by the time they arrived in Florence, in spite of having stopped for a while at Cantagallo to warm up. We found the city in a semi state of seige, with a great many military and police blocks stationed here and there to prevent thieving in the flooded areas.

Some of the lorries that arrived from Bologna

The oily black line left by the high water mark was to been seen everywhere, on all the walls of the houses, like some sort of dirty fresco that the floodwaters had decided to leave behind. Seeing as how I had had antitetanus and antityphoid injections the previous summer, and owned a pair of work gloves, instead of being sent to remove books or works of art from the mud, I was sent to an old folks' home in Via Malcontenti , where we worked with some equipment that seemed almost ridiculous, if we consider the gravity of the disaster (spades and a small Guzzi 500 truck), removing mud from the main courtyard and from the cellars of some of the houses nearby.

Two coachloads of students about to set out from Bologna to offer their help to Florence

There was no water and therefore we could not clean the mud from the things we brought up from the cellars and just had to leave it all in the courtyards or outside in the road. However, we had to remove all the stuff from the cellars to be able to start cleaning up the mud. Close by, on the banks of the Arno, a group from what I think was the Dutch army, began setting up a water purifying unit. I was most impressed by their technical preparation.

The Mud Angels on their return to Bologna from work

Their cold efficiency however made a stark contrast with the imaginative Tuscans. When we returned to Bologna it was almost physical painful to find the city living its normal day to day life, with people strolling about looking at the shop windows, little thinking that only an hour's journey away in the car, other people were struggling under terrible circumstances. Getting off the bus again in Piazza Maggiore, covered from head to foot in mud, the passersby looked at us as though we were some kind of strange and frightening animal, while we felt that we had been through an experience that was impossible to describe to people who had never lived through something like it.

A lorry from Bologna distributing drinking water to the people of Florence

Later on, I discovered after reading books on the war, that many of the soldiers on leave from the front had also experienced the same kind of feeling. It was an experience that was to have a great influence on my whole life, an important stage for me while growing from youth to manhood. It helped me to make a definite decision to do what I could to assist people less fortunate than myself. Even now that I am 45, and in spite of many delusions, I still do volunteer work and have in fact gone several times to ex-Jugoslavia to take supplies to the people there. Last of all I would like to remember the effect that experience was also to have on the social growth of an entire generation: only a few years later I found all my friends who came to Florence with me involved in the student movements of the period.

Umberto Mazzone Via Canovaccia 13 40067 Rastignano di Pianoro (Bologna)

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The photos, whose author is unknown, were kindly sent by Umberto Mazzone



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