di Davide Marchetta
(By Sandra Cordon) Cagliari, November 19 - A state of emergency was declared Tuesday on the Italian island of Sardinia after a cyclone dumping heavy rains killed 18 people and drove almost 3,000 from their homes. One Sardinian woman described how she watched as a "huge wave" of water swept through her home as she scrambled to safety in the top floor of her building during a night of blackouts and terror. The Italian government pledged an initial 20 million euros in disaster aid and sent in the military to help with relief efforts in what Premier Enrico Letta, who flew to the island Tuesday afternoon to view the damage, called "a national tragedy". Rainstorms Tuesday afternoon triggered fresh fears of flooding, but civil protection officials said the forecast did not look so serious. Meanwhile, residents struggled to cope with what one official said amounted to the equivalent of six months' worth of rain falling in 24 hours. "We had no electricity or phones and we did not know what was going on," said the woman, who described a night of terror at her home in the hard-hit city of Olbia. "Suddenly, we saw a huge wave of water reach our home, like an ocean wave, dragging everything away," and pushing her car into the street, she said of the powerful Cyclone Cleopatra that swept the island. "Luckily we were able to reach safety by climbing the top floor of the building," she said. At least 2,700 people were displaced by the flood of water and subsequent waves of mud, forced to sleep in hotels or with family and friends, Italy's environment minister reported. Torrential rain flooded streets, sweeping cars away, caused rivers to burst their banks and bridges to collapse. Television footage showed roads and highways as well as railway lines submerged by violent rushing water. Schools in the affected areas were closed but police remained busy, dealing with at least five complaints of looting in Olbia as well as helping with disaster relief. Many are still reported missing, and Pope Francis said he was "deeply moved" by the "huge tragedy". The regional government pledged another five million euros in initial aid as farm organization Coldiretti estimated that about 80% of the island's local governments were affected by the cyclone. The Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) also pledged one million euros in disaster relief. Some residents questioned why authorities gave them no warning of such a major weather event. "I have lived in Olbia for 40 years and I had never seen such a thing," said one man as he began to clean up his home. But Franco Gabrielli, head of the national civil protection body who flew to Sardinia to coordinate relief efforts, defended the warning system, saying it worked but that no one could predict such "an exceptional event". At least 50 members of Cagliari's provincial civil protection agency were helping with the clean-up and technicians were monitoring bridge safety in their area. Gabrielli said 13 of the victims were from the province of Olbia, two were from the province of Nuoro and one was from near Oristano. "Within 24 hours the quantity of rain that fell was equal to the precipitation of six months, with a peak of 450 mm in the area of Orgosolo (Nuoro) in 12 hours," said Gabrielli. The disaster illustrates the importance of greater environmental and land protections to avoid similar disasters, said House Speaker Laura Boldrini. "The disaster we are witnessing...puts us once again in front of one of the most serious issues that affect our time and our territory: that of protecting the environment," she said. "We really need a commitment from all institutions to implement concrete actions to avoid natural disasters, including (those of an) extraordinary nature, that too often have consequences so tragic and painful," said Boldrini. The victims included a Brazilian family of four that drowned when their basement apartment in Arzachena, near Olbia, was submerged in a flash flood. In all, four children were killed in the disaster, BBC reported on its website. Another victim was a police officer whose car plunged from a collapsing bridge as he tried to take an injured person to receive medical assistance. Following an emergency cabinet meeting, Letta said the government's initial priority was "saving lives and helping the people evacuated from their homes". "Unfortunately there are lots of people in this situation and the death toll is dramatic," he added. President Giorgio Napolitano expressed "solidarity with the communities" affected and said in a statement that he was "pained" by the disaster. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called the event "tragic".