Torrential rain battered eastern Sicily on Wednesday, where mudslides have killed at least three people and muddy torrents have swept away cars and washed out bridges, authorities said.
A mudslide in the hamlet of Saponara, near the Sicilian port city of Messina, fatally struck a 10-year-old boy Tuesday as his family fled their home. Much of Italy's terrain is landslide-prone, and many have built homes on steep hillsides in defiance of warnings by geologists.
Muddy torrents of water rushed through the Messina area, sweeping along cars as if they were toys and knocking down part of an elevated roadway.
Heavy rains also lashed Calabria, the southern Italian region across from Sicily. State railways said washed out railway bridges, landslides on track and flooding caused suspension of service on some routes.
About 100 soldiers were sent in to Saponara, one of the worst hit towns, to rescue residents stranded in flooded homes or vehicles, Italian news reports said.
This fall, flash flooding in Genoa, northwest Italy, killed at least six people, and at least nine perished in severe floods in Tuscany and the Cinque Terre tourist area of Liguria.
President Giorgio Napolitano asked local authorities to express his solidarity and closeness to the victims' families and repeated his appeal to Italians to pay urgent attention to their fragile environment.
Some of the flooding has been blamed on failure to regularly clean storm drains.
Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi had been criticized by environmentalists for concentrating his government's efforts on his pet project to build a bridge over the strait dividing Messina from Calabria, instead of devoting financial resources and manpower to more mundane projects like maintaining drainage systems and shoring up hillsides prone to landslides.
With Italy now slashing spending to cut deficit and devote resources to reviving the economy and prevent financial disaster, the plan to build a bridge has fallen by the wayside.
"A dramatic national emergency is before our eyes," said Stella Bianchi, the center-left Democratic Party's point person on the environment. "We are paying a painful price for years of errors, culpable lack of attention" and excessive building, she said in a statement.