ROME – Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi promised Sunday to build new houses for the victims of massive mudslides in Sicily that killed at least 22 people and left more than 500 homeless.
Berlusconi visited the devastated area around the eastern coastal city of Messina and met with survivors who were being housed in area hotels.
He promised them the government would build new houses — complete with sheets, flowers and a week's worth of groceries — just as it did for the survivors of an April 6 earthquake in central Italy.
He noted that the first such houses were given over to L'Aquila quake victims five months after the quake struck.
"I think we can do that easily here," he told a briefing in Messina.
Rivers of mud tore down the mountainside and flooded parts of Messina and surrounding towns on Thursday night and Friday morning, killing 22 people and leaving another 40 still unaccounted for.
Berlusconi said the devastation was caused by an "exceptional" deluge that dumped more than 9 inches of rain in a few hours.
Officials have acknowledged that deforestation and unregulated development — a widespread practice in Sicily and other parts of southern Italy — had weakened the soil and contributed to the disaster.
Berlusconi didn't refer explicitly to the problem of illegal construction, which is prevalent with the Sicilian Mafia. But he said the devastation had been foreseen by the government. In 2007, a mudslide tore through one of the hardest-hit towns, but nothing was done to reinforce the mountainside above it.
"We sounded the alarm for some time," Berlusconi said, without elaborating.
He said the primary job for rebuilding would lie with Sicily's autonomous regional government, which he said had already set aside $29 million. He said the national government would also contribute.