Florence Flood Anniversary Event
November 4, 2016
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
(As prepared for delivery)
Fifty years ago today, this city’s history and legacy were threatened. And fifty years ago today, you – and so many others – stepped in to save it. We have many examples over the years of the close bond between our two countries, but the commitment of the American people – along with people from all over the world – to help Florence recover from that terrible disaster is one of the most significant. And so I have one thing to say to you: thank you.
In looking back at the U.S. government’s records of that crisis, we found the recollections of someone who played a crucial role: Consul General Joseph Wheeler. The National Archives has Joseph Wheeler’s record of events from November 3-6. In this diary, Wheeler notes that by 11:30 on the morning of November 4, the Consulate began to move its entire staff, files and supplies to the upper floors as the water continued to rise. The Consulate employees and family members, working in a building – like many in town – without electricity or plumbing and with limited supplies of food, set up a makeshift shuttle service, using their own cars, to transport hundreds of stranded Americans to the train station. Other Americans, evacuated from their hotels or houses, stayed at the Consulate until they could return to their residences or depart town.
The Archives also have hundreds of pages documenting the correspondence from our missions in Italy to the State Department about the flood and the relief effort. During that time, the Consulate was answering inquiries from Americans– from U.S. Senators to groups of schoolchildren, about how they could help. We coordinated with large organizations such as the Committee to Rescue Italian Art, chaired by Jackie Kennedy, the Florentine Relief Fund and the Red Cross which, among other things, provided typhoid and tetanus vaccines). The mission coordinated aid from Catholic Relief Services, the Sons of Italy, students from many universities, and even an Italian-American who offered to send livestock to Tuscany to replenish the cattle lost in the flood. The U.S. Air Force delivered water distillation tanker trucks provided by the Dutch government.
Our military bases in Livorno, Vicenza, and Aviano also provided water trucks, generators, pumps, dump trucks, bulldozers, power boats, and many soldier volunteers. As of December 2, 1966, the U.S. military had provided: 18,600 C-rations; 1,500 containers of evaporated and powdered milk; 2,675 blankets; 1,500 fatigue jackets and trousers; 400 sleeping bags; 100 mattresses; 150,000 Vitamin C tablets; and 15,000 metric tons of wheat to replenish school lunch stocks.
In addition to these memories, I have my own.
Ten years ago, I was in Florence for the 40th anniversary of the flood. I already felt like more than just a tourist in this region – But that trip really brought home how precious Florence is to so many of us, and what a place it has in our collective memory. My travelling companion on that trip was my friend Ted Kennedy, who was also a Mud Angel.
Of course, we can’t forget all of the Florentines, and Italians from all over the country, who were just as dedicated to the rescue of the city, its art, its literature, and its people from this terrible disaster. One of the leaders of that effort was Mayor Piero Bargellini. Just as Mayor Bargellini did in the aftermath of the flood, both PM Renzi and Mayor Nardella continue to raising the city’s profile in the world. And this week, Mayor Nardella continues the tradition by hosting the second “Unity in Diversity” conference of mayors, in which 70 mayors from around the world focus on safeguarding our shared cultural heritage, on addressing climate change, the need for alternative energy sources, and the overall goal of environmental sustainability.
And that collaboration is just as important today. Italy continues to be a strong global partner in one of the biggest challenges facing our citizens: climate change. It has signified that commitment by ratifying the Paris agreement just last week.
In closing, we cannot thank you enough for taking action at a time when this city – which is so important to the entire world, needed it most. That sense of community and support is much needed around the world today and we all look to the example set by you — the mud angels, in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy. Thank you.