di Marcello Mento
By Emily Backus Cagliari, November 20 - The search continued on Wednesday for a missing sheep farmer after a deadly cyclone rocked Sardinia, leaving 16 dead and forcing thousands from their homes, while washing out roads and bridges. About 1,750 people on Sardinia had to evacuate their homes due to the fatal storm that hit the island Monday night, the Civil Protection Department said Wednesday. The Italian government declared a state of emergency. The mayor of the rural mountain town Bitti, where search efforts continue for the farmer last seen Monday night, said at least half the homes in the town were at risk of ruin. ''Bitti is on its knees devastated by this flood. Fifty-sixty percent of the homes are at risk of collapsing. From the data we have, in 150 years never has so much water fallen,'' said Giuseppe Ciccolini, who added his solidarity for the family of the missing man. Pope Francis on Wednesday urged prayers for Sardinian storm victims during his general audience in St. Peter's Square. ''We cannot forget the victims of the flood in Sardinia,'' said the pope, who one day earlier sent a telegram expressing support and encouragement for the island's residents. ''We pray for them and for their families,'' Francis said. By Wednesday, most of the displaced had returned to their homes, but 1,479 took refuge with friends or family, while 131 people remained in emergency shelters. The power company ENEL on Wednesday added 50 people to the island, beefing up its task force to 650 technicians working to restore electricity infrastructure. Firefighters, soldiers and emergency workers laboured through Tuesday night to eliminate water from flooded buildings and underpasses, particularly in northeastern Sardinia, which was hardest hit. The farmers' association Coldiretti warned that damage done to farms and roads is a calamity for sheep in a zone that raises more than 40% of Italy's total. Herds are in danger of starvation, isolated by washed-out rural access roads and collapsed bridges used to bring them feed or to move them to forage, the farmers' group said. ''The raging waters made whole herds disappear, tore away barn roofs, fences, tractors, flooded fields and orchards,'' added Coldiretti in a statement. Italy's Civil Protection chief Franco Gabrielli on Wednesday slammed local authorities for allowing the disastrous cyclone to catch them unprepared. ''Enough of flimsy arguments. The Civil Protection put out a weather alert 12 hours prior to the rain, warning prefectures and the regional government, who must then inform municipalities. Ask these bodies what they did,'' Gabrielli told RAI radio. Gabrielli was also responding to accusations that the Civil Protection failed to give Sardinia adequate notice of the impending danger. ''The State gives the directive, the regions (formulate) the regulations in detail. Some regions have not yet created (emergency management plans). And I repeat that the forecasts are important, but if there is no planning, everything is useless,'' Gabrielli said. A European Union official on Tuesday said it was ''ready to evaluate any request from Italy'' regarding aid in the aftermath of the torrential rains. ''We're watching the situation very closely and my services are in close contact with Sardinia's Civil Protection authorities,'' said European Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn.