Costa Concordia disaster: Italian government reaction 'low key'

The Costa Concordia as seen from Giglio island
Image caption The environmental effects of the Costa Concordia could be huge

Postwar Italian governments have had to deal with many natural and man-made disasters in their time - including the Alpine dam landslide and overflow at Vajont in 1963 (2,000 dead), earthquakes near Naples in 1980 (nearly 3,000 dead), and L'Aquila in 2009 (over 300 dead), not to mention the sinking of the Italian transatlantic ocean liner Andrea Doria in fog off Nantucket Island in 1956 (46 dead).

But there has never been a shipwreck disaster quite like that of the luxury cruise ship Concordia off the coast of Tuscany.

The loss of life has been mercifully small (11 dead and 24 persons unaccounted for at the latest count) in relation to the more than 4,200 passengers and crew on board at the moment when the vessel struck a rock - apparently through human error. But the risk of a looming environmental disaster in an area of outstanding natural beauty through the spillage of the Concordia's 1.9m litres of fuel oil into the sea remains real.

If the vessel, at present lying on its side and perched on underwater rocks, should be displaced by rough seas during the coming days and weeks, it could slip entirely below the waves, making the salvage operation more dangerous and difficult.

Local heroes

It was the local authorities, not the government in Rome, which first reacted to the disaster.

The island of Giglio forms part of the Tuscan archipelago, a noted Mediterranean marine sanctuary, whose clear waters attract thousands of visitors every summer.

So it was the local coastguard and civil protection agency, the regional government of Tuscany, and the local judiciary in nearby Grosseto, not Rome, which kick-started the emergency reaction to the disaster.

Prime Minister Mario Monti has proposed official recognition of the instant welcome and refuge given by the inhabitants of Giglio to the thousands of passengers and crew who escaped from the stricken vessel during a dark January night, unexpectedly more than trebling the population of their tiny island.

They are to be recommended for the Medal for Valour, Italy's highest civil award.

Differing styles

Image caption Government reaction was more visible after the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila

But in contrast to the hands-on reaction of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to the L'Aquila earthquake disaster, Mr Monti's follow up has been very low key.

While Mr Berlusconi turned up in L'Aquila regularly each day following the quake to take personal charge of the relief effort amid a blaze of canny personal publicity, Mr Monti has deliberately avoided the spotlight, patiently focusing on a very much larger and more serious potential shipwreck - that of the Italian economy, suffering under the burden of the Eurozone debt crisis.

Environment Minister Corrado Clini has been leading the Rome government's reaction. He is now considering imposing a state of emergency which will release national funds to cover operations aimed at limiting the extent of the pollution from the stricken cruise liner.

In recent decades Italy has devolved many powers formerly exercised from Rome to regional governments - with varied success. But the modern regional government of Tuscany - traditionally left-wing - has continued the traditions of good governance of the former Medici rulers of this part of Italy.

Before unification in the 19th Century, travellers from Florence to Rome frequently remarked in their diaries on the lawlessness and banditry which they encountered on first entering the less well governed papal territories of Rome and central Italy.

Italy has just been celebrating the 150th anniversary of the country's unification under the Kingdom of Savoy. Yet the new regions, which usually follow the territorial delineations of formerly sovereign Grand Duchies, Kingdoms and Republics, such as Florence or Venice, often perpetuate these ancient administrative divisions.

Venice's dilemma

A committee of MPs from the upper house of the Italian parliament charged with overseeing environmental problems travelled to Venice earlier this week, where they heard a heartfelt plea from Venice's Mayor, Giorgio Orsini, to ban all cruise ships from visiting the lagoon city in future because of the incalculable environmental damage which might be caused by a similar accident to that which befell the Concordia.

Image caption The Costa Concordia disaster has raised fears in Venice about cruise ships visiting the lagoon city

Dozens of these gigantic floating hotels belching CO2 and sulphur from their smokestacks regularly pass within 150 metres of Saint Mark's Square, in order to give cruise tourists an exclusive bird's eye panoramic view of the historic city.

They have to wait for high tide to clear the navigation channels dredged inside the lagoon to accommodate big ships. And they are towed by tugs, their engines idling, not under their own power, just like aircraft leaving airport departure gates, to prevent their propellers churning up mud at the bottom of the lagoon.

But according to Renata Codello, the superintendent or Culture Ministry official in charge of conserving the unique architecture and landscape of Venice, the danger of an environmental disaster is minimal. There are no rocks underwater near Saint Mark's Square, just mud, she points out.

However one cruise ship, the Mona Lisa, did run aground on a mudbank near Saint Mark's in 2004 and had to be towed off by tugs.

The floating entertainment city cruise ships, some of which now tower up 10 stories above the water, bring valuable trade to Venice and one thing the city fathers do not want to do at this moment of economic crisis is to scare tour operators and tourists away.