Vajont Dam
The Vajont Dam (or Vaiont Dam ) is a disused dam, completed in 1959 in the valley of the Vajont river under Monte Toc, 100 km north of Venice, Italy. It was responsible for the deaths of approximately 2,000 people in a 1963 landslide. One of the tallest dams in the world, it is 262 metres (860 ft) high, 27 metres (89 ft) thick at the base and 3.4 metres (11 ft) at the top. Its 1963 over-topping was caused when the designers ignored the geological instability of Monte Toc on the southern side of the basin. Warning signs and negative appraisals during the early stages of filling were disregarded, and the attempt to complete the filling led to a landslide which created a seiche wave that brought massive flooding and destruction to the Piave valley below, wiping out several villages completely. On 12 February 2008, while launching the International Year of Planet Earth, UNESCO cited the Vajont Dam tragedy as one of five "cautionary tales", caused by "the failure of engineers and geologists."

The dam was built by SADE ( Società Adriatica di Elettricità, English: Adriatic Energy Corporation), the electricity supply and distribution monopolist in North-Eastern Italy. The owner, Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, had been Mussolini's Minister of Finances for several years. The 'tallest dam in the world', across the Vajont gorge, was conceived in the 1920s to meet the growing demands for industrialisation, but not until the confusion after Mussolini's fall during WW II was the project authorised on 15 October 1943. The dam and basin were intended to be at the centre of a complex system of water management in which water would have been channeled from nearby valleys and artificial basins located at higher levels. Tens of kilometres of concrete pipes and pipe-bridges across valleys were planned. Due to the 1963 disaster and to smaller scale landslides in other basins in the zone, the system never actually operated. In the 1950s SADE's monopoly was confirmed by post-Fascist governments and it purchased the lands despite opposition by the communities of Erto and Casso in the valley, which was overcome with government and police support. SADE stated that the geology of the gorge had been studied, including analysis of ancient landslides, and that the mountain was believed to be sufficiently stable. Construction work started in 1957, but by 1959 shifts and fractures were noticed while building a new road on the side of Monte Toc. This led to new studies in which three different experts separately told SADE that the entire side of Monte Toc was unstable and would have likely collapsed into the basin if the filling had been completed. All three were ignored by SADE. This has been attributed to the need to meet deadlines for public funding, and to activate the plant before the soon-to-be-approved nationalisation of electricity production, so maximising compensation from the State. In October 1959 construction was completed and in February 1960 SADE was authorised to start filling the basin.

Early signs of disaster
Throughout the summer of 1960, minor landslides and earth movements were noticed; however instead of heeding these warning signs, the Italian government chose to sue the handful of journalists reporting the problems for "undermining the social order." On 4 November 1960, with the level of the basin at about 190 metres of the planned 262, a landslide of about 800,000 cubic metres collapsed into the lake. SADE stopped the filling, lowered the level by about 50 metres and started to build an artificial gallery in the basin in front of Monte Toc, to keep the basin usable even when the expected further landslides divided it into two parts. In October 1961, after the completion of the gallery, SADE restarted the filling under controlled monitoring. In April and May 1962, with the basin at 215 metres, the people of Erto e Casso reported five earthquakes of 'grade five' on the Mercalli scale, though SADE downplayed their importance. SADE was then authorized to complete the filling up to the maximum level. In July 1962, SADE's own engineers reported the results of model-based experiments on the effects of further landslides into the lake, which predicted a devastating disaster if they happened when the basin was full. The management ignored these results as well. In March 1963, the dam was transferred to the newly constituted public company for electricity, ENEL, but the management remained the same. In the following summer, with the basin almost completely filled, slides, shakes and movements of the ground were continuously reported by the scared population. On 15 September the entire side of the mountain moved down by 22 centimetres. On 26 September, SADE decided to slowly empty the basin down to the level of 240 metres, but in early October the collapse of the mountain looked unavoidable - one day it moved almost one metre. No warning or displacement order was ever issued to the population.

Landslide and seiche
On 9 October 1963 at approximately 10:35pm, the combination of 'drawing-down the reservoir' and heavy rains triggered a landslide of about 260 million cubic metres of forest, earth, and rock, which fell into the reservoir at up to 110 km per hour (68 mph). The resulting displacement of water caused 50 million cubic metres of water to over-top the dam in a 250-metre high wave. Despite this, the dam's structure was largely undamaged — the top metre or so of masonry was washed away, but the basic structure remained intact. The flooding in the Piave valley destroyed the villages of Longarone, Pirago, Rivalta, Villanova and Faè, killing 1,450 people and turning the land below into a flat plain of mud. Many small villages in the territory of Erto e Casso and the village of Codissago, near Castellavazzo, were largely wrecked. Estimates of the dead range from 1900 to 2500 people, and about 350 families were completely wiped away. Most of the survivors had lost their relatives, their friends, their homes and belongings. The villages near the landslide also suffered damage from the 'air displacement' caused by the immense "splash".

Causes and responsibilities
Immediately after the disaster, the government (who now owned the dam), politicians and public authorities insisted on attributing the tragedy to an unexpected and unavoidable natural event. The debate in the newspapers was heavily influenced by politics. The left-wing paper L'Unità was the first to denounce the responsibilities of the management and government, as it had previously carried a number of articles by Tina Merlin addressing the the behaviour of the SADE management in the Vajont and other businesses. Indro Montanelli, the most influential Italian journalist and a vocal anti-communist, attacked L'Unità and denied any human factor: L'Unità and PCI were dubbed "jackals, speculating on pain and on the dead" in many articles by the Domenica del Corriere and in a poster of a national campaign paid by Democrazia Cristiana (DC). The catastrophe was attributed only to natural causes and God's will. The DC campaign openly accused PCI of sending agitprops into the refugees communities, in form of relief personnel: most of them were partisans from Emilia Romagna who fought on Mount Toc in the WW2 and often had friends in the stricken area. DC, the party of prime minister Giovanni Leone, accused the PCI of 'political profiteering' from the tragedy. Leone promised to bring justice to the people killed in the disaster. A few months after he lost the premiership he became the head of SADE's team of lawyers who significantly reduced compensation for survivors and avoided payment to at least 600 victims. The DC's newspaper, La Discussione , stated that the disaster was a "mysterious act of god's love", in an article that was strongly criticized by L'Unità Apart from journalistic attacks and the attempted cover-up from news sources aligned with the government, there had been proven flaws in the geological assessments and disregard of warnings about the likelihood of a disaster by SADE, ENEL and the government. The trial was moved by the judges of the preliminary trial to L'Aquila, near Rome, thus preventing public participation, and resulted in mild punishments for a few of the SADE and ENEL engineers. One SADE engineer (Mario Pancini) committed suicide in 1968. The government never sued SADE for damage compensation. Subsequent engineering analysis has focused on the cause of the landslide, and there remains ongoing debate about the contribution of rainfall, dam level changes and earthquakes as triggers of the landslide, as well as differing views about whether it was an old landslide that slipped further or a completely new one. There were a number of problems with the choice of site for the dam and reservoir: The canyon was steep sided, the river had undercut its banks, the limestone and clay-stone rocks that made up the walls of the canyon were inter-bedded with the slippery clay-like Lias and Dogger Jurassic period horizons and the Cretaceous period Malm horizon, all of which were inclined towards the axis of the canyon. In addition, the limestone layers contained many solution caverns which only became more saturated due to rains in September. Prior to the landslide that caused the over-topping flood, the creep of the regolith had been 0.4 inches per week. During September this creep reached 10.0 inches per day until finally, the day before the landslide, the creep was measured at 40.0 inches (1 metre).

Most of the survivors were moved into a newly built village, Vajont, 50 kilometres south east on the river Tagliamento plain. Those who insisted on returning to their mountain life in Erto e Casso were strongly discouraged. Longarone and other villages in the Piave valley were rebuilt with modern houses and factories. The government used the disaster to promote the industrialisation of the North-East of Italy. Survivors were entitled to 'business start-up' loans, public subsidies and ten years tax exemption, all of which they could 'sell-on' to major companies from the Venice region. These concessions were then converted into millions of euros for plants elsewhere. Among the corporations were Zanussi (now owned by Electrolux), Ceramica Dolomite (now owned by American Standard), Confezioni SanRemo, SAVIC (now owned by Italcementi). Compensation measures did not clearly differentiate between victims and people who lived nearby, thus much of the compensation went to people who had suffered little damage, creating a negative public image. A pumping station was installed in the dam basin to keep the lake at a constant level, and the bypass gallery was lengthened beyond the dam to let the water flow down to the Piave valley. The dam wall is still in place and maintained, but there are no plans to exploit it. The dry basin, filled with landslip, has been open to visitors since 2002.

In the media
After the initial world-wide reporting the tragedy became regarded as part of the 'price of economic growth' in the 1950s and 1960s. Interest was rejuvenated by a 1997 television program by Marco Paolini and Gabriele Vacis, "Il racconto del Vajont". A 2001 movie "Vajont, La diga del disonore" ("Vajont, the dam of dishonour") or "La folie des hommes" (in France), starred Michel Serrault and Daniel Auteuil. It was studied in the 2008 documentary series Disasters.

Images at Italian Wiki
  • Aerial view of the 'Valley-Vajont' shortly after the disaster of 9 October 1963. Only available on Italian Wiki due to Copyright restrictions. The image shows the landslide of 260 million cubic meters of rock and mud that has detached from Mount Toc, then filled and overflowed the reservoir. The 'over-top' rock flow on the right side shows the origin of the minor damage to the top 2 metres of concrete that is still visible in 2009.
  • The 'bell tower' at Longarone shortly after the disaster of 9 October 1963. Only available on Italian Wiki due to Copyright restrictions. The Bell Tower that remained standing after the passage of the 'wave of death'. The Church at the base was completely swept away with the entire village.


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