The disaster that came towards them in slow motion, but eventually caught up with Ischia

The episode ‘Imagemakers’ examines how a photograph affects our view of reality. This week: the miraculously preserved house on the edge of a gaping abyss.

Arno Haijtema

Two American occupants of a small plane that miraculously survive a collision with an electricity pylon despite dangling high above the ground for hours. Three Nigerian stowaways who survived the eleven-day journey across the ocean from Lagos to Las Palmas, Spain, at the helm of a tanker and were discovered in port on Monday with only mild dehydration. It is not uncommon for such images of horror news with a happy ending appearing on late night television news. They soothe the viewer for the night: in all disasters there is always hope.

Perhaps the disaster that struck the Calabrian island of Ischia on Saturday was too great to provide any bright spots to soften the hard news. A mudslide engulfed the city after heavy rain. Houses were swept away, cars were crushed. At least eleven people were killed and one person is still missing. But: with all that upheaval, there was that image of Fredningshuset. A believer sees God’s hand in it.

The garden has been swept away, but the villa itself has survived unscathed the destruction that began at its foundations. The laundry hangs to dry on the veranda, the garden furniture is ready when the southern sun shines again. If the residents sit with their backs to the gaping chasm, they can entertain themselves in the illusion that life goes on as usual.

Such a clearing in the face of hard news can obscure the view of the background. The news channels capture the three blind passengers who braved the sea, but they do not avoid the question of why they risked their lives. The miracle of the conservation house has the attraction of a fairy tale, but in the meantime it is mainly a painful metaphor for the failing administration on Ischia. The proliferation of illegally built housing has made the land vulnerable to landslides. The authorities did not intervene, corrupt or wary of the violent protests of allegedly duped residents. United in horror, they will have watched the “natural disaster” unfold, even if it was predictable and at least partly man-made.

Not typically Italian, arbitrary residents and authorities who look away, or their laxity to intervene in case of unacceptable risks. The Dutch are also living with their backs to threats, the national coordinator for security and counter-terrorism warned this week. Few people are prepared for a ‘disruptive disaster’, which can occur in the event of a large-scale (cyber) attack. No battery operated radio in the house, no tealight, flashlight or water to get through the first two days of expected chaos.

Disasters are beyond the imagination of the Dutch, which is why previous campaigns to persuade them to buy an emergency package failed. Anyone who thought the government would resolutely take the initiative was wrong. “We’re not going to hand out packages. We never will,” the government said. In matters of life and death, it is every man for himself for at least 48 hours, with his tealights and bottles of water.

Rescue workers went to work with their characteristic efficiency after the landslides on Ischia. Photographs of their activities show the Italian mainland and the snowy mountains of which Vesuvius is a part. The volcano that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum with ash and lava. It is the timeless symbol of extreme natural disasters, fossilized in 3D prints of victims. We can still see how in pain they shielded their heads with their hands in vain.

The volcanic eruption was an unforeseen disaster. The rulers of Ischia, even with the admonition of Vesuvius on the horizon, did not want to see the danger. The Netherlands warns its citizens, but first hopes for their self-reliance in the event of a conflict. Unfounded trust.

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