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As early as the 1920s, the management of SADE (Società Adriatica di Elettricita) envisioned the ambitious project that would become the Vajont Dam, under Monte Toc, 100 km north of Venice, Italy.  SADE’s owner,  Guiseppe Volpi di Misurata managed to get this project approved on 15 October 1943, in the confusion that reigned following the fall of Mussolini.  However, due to the war, construction on the Vajont Dam did not commence until 1957.  During the construction and in the years following, independent experts and SADE’s own engineers offered repeated warnings of land shifts and movements in Monte Toc, behind the dam.  SADE and the Italian government ignored these warnings, and on 9 October 1963 at 22:35, 260 million cubic meter of trees, earth and rocks tumbled into the Vajont dam basin, causing the reservoir to overflow.  While the dam itself maintained structural integrity, the resulting flood killed a total of 1909 people and wiped out 350 entire families.

Disaster Foreshadowed

While SADE received authorization from the Italian government to build the Vajont Dam in 1943, construction did not begin until 1957, and was roughly completed in 1959.  The Vajont Dam and its basin were meant to be part of a water management system servicing many nearby communties, but in fact, the plant never operated.

Through the summer of 1960, minor landslides and earth movements alarmed journalists, but the Italian government responded by suing them.   On 4 November, 1960, with the level of the basin at 190 m (out of a possible 262 m), an 800,000 cubic meter landslide toppled into the lake.  SADE stopped the filling process and lowered the lake’s level by about 50 m.  They began to construct an artificial gallery at the foot of Monte Toc, to keep the basin usable, as they were  aware that further landslides would damage it irreparably. 

In July 1962, SADE ignored its own engineers when they predicted a massive disaster if another landslide fell into the basin after it was full.

In March 1963, the new public electric company, ENEL, took over the dam, but SADE retained management responsibilities.  That summer, with the basin nearly at capacity, slides, shakes, and tremors began to alarm the local populace.

Landslide and Seiche

On 9 October, 1963, at around 22:35 heavy rains triggered an enormous landslide on Monte Toc.  260 million cubic meters of trees, rocks and soil fell into the reservoir at speeds reaching 110 km (68 m) per hour.  50 million cubic meters of water rushed over the top of the Vajont Dam, in a 250 m high wave called a seiche.  The Vajont Dam retained its structural integrity,  but the massive flood rushed into the Piave Valley below, destroying the villages of Longarone, Pirago, Rivalta, Villanova, and Fae, and wrecking many others in the region of Erto e Casso.  A total of 1,909 people were killed; 350 whole families perished.

Aftermath and Reconstruction

The government attempted to claim that the landslide and flood were acts of God.  However, it was apparent that both SADE and ENEL had received ample warning of dangerous instabilities in  face of Monte Toc.  After a trial in L’Aquila, near Rome, a few of SADE’s and ENEL’s engineers were lightly punished.  One of them, Mario Pancini, committed suicide in 1968.

Most of the survivors were moved to a newly built village called Vajont, about 50 km away.  The villages in the Piave Valley were rebuilt in modern style, with new factories.  The Italian government used the Valmont Dam disaster to promote industrialization in this region, and a new law gave financial privileges to survivors.  However, the law also allowed corporations to purchase these privileges from their owners.  Companies who benefitted from these practices include Zanussi (now part of Electrolux) and Ceramica Dolomite (now part of American Standard).  Compensation measures made little distinction between victims and citizens who merely lived nearby; as a result, compensation went to people who had suffered no damage, and this contributed to negative popular stereotypes surrounding the victims of the Vajont Dam disaster.

 

The Vajont Dam has been repaired and remains in place, though there are no plans to use the facility.

The Vajont Dam opened to visitors in 2002.

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