ROME – Rescue workers dug for a second day Saturday through piles of mud and debris as they searched for about 30 missing people from a mudslide that has killed at least 21 in Sicily.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi said he feared the death toll from Italy's worst mudslides in a decade could rise to 50. The Italian premier is expected to survey the area by helicopter on Sunday, his office said.
Rivers of mud unleashed by heavy rains flooded parts of Messina, a city in eastern Sicily, on Friday, sweeping away cars and collapsing buildings. Hundreds were left homeless and about 80 injured.
With the rain letting up and sun forecast in coming days, the head of the Civil Protection Department expressed cautious hope the worst was over. "The situation is difficult and complex, but it is under control," Guido Bertolaso told reporters from Messina.
However, some roads were still impassable and the terrain unstable from the rain that fell in the past days. Bertolaso said that some roads had "crumbled."
Rescue teams were digging with bulldozers, shovels and bare hands through the mud. Some rescuers were aided by sniffer dogs as they searched for survivors. Firefighters were clearing away the mud from major roads.
Officials said the number of missing was believed to be around 30 but was hard to determine. About four missing people were found to have been away from the area at the time of the disaster, said Luca Spoletini of the Civil Protection Department.
One village remained isolated and only reachable by air, Spoletini said, while rescue teams managed to create a roadway to another small town that had been inaccessible. He said that while the lives of people in the villages were not believed to be in danger, there were concerns for their health and hygiene.
A few hundred people were evacuated from unsafe homes and moved to hotels in Messina being used as rescue centers, Spoletini said. Some older residents did not want to abandon their homes and had to be persuaded to go.
The mudslides left entire blocks covered by piles of rubble and mud, and cars were swallowed up by the mud.
Residents in one of the hardest hit villages, Giampilieri, had no water or electricity. Some of the injured ones suffered severe burns from the explosion of gas pipes and cylinders, officials said.
Storms late Thursday and early Friday unleashed 9 inches of rain in just three hours.
But officials 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 mudslides from Messina's surrounding hills and cliffs.
Italian newspapers said that nothing has previously been done to secure the area, which had been hit by a landslide two years ago. There were no victims then.
"Every time there is an emergency one talks about it and then nothing is done, letting mud and water come down savagely," Vincenzo Pinnizzotto, a geologist from the area, told Corriere della Sera.
The latest mudslide was Italy's deadliest since 1998, when a rain-drenched mountain near Naples unleashed a torrent of mud that submerged villages and killed 150.