Illegal building ‘played central role’ in Athens floods – death toll rises to 20

The Guardian — Chaotic urban planning and illegal construction in Athens played a central role in the deadly flash floods that killed 20 people last week, experts in Greece have claimed as authorities pledged emergency funding for victims made homeless by the disaster.

About 1,000 owners of homes and businesses are eligible for the assistance, according to government engineers dispatched to inspect the buildings.

Five days after the flash floods turned the city’s roads into raging torrents of mud and debris, specialised rescue response teams continued to search for missing people.

Two male drivers thought to have been trapped in their vehicles when the torrential rains hit have yet to be accounted for. The death toll rose to 20 on Sunday when disaster units discovered two bodies in a warehouse in Mandra, the western suburb where damage was most widespread.

Most of the fatalities were elderly people found in basement flats that had been inundated by floodwater. Two men were swept into the sea in the bay of Eleusis, 11 miles from Athens city centre, by the force of the deluge.

Poor infrastructure, including drainage systems, often makes Athens susceptible to flooding. But many believe the roads in the three suburbs of Mandra, Megara and Nea Peramos were inundated because of human intervention.

Uncontrolled building on the outskirts of the Greek capital has resulted in numerous streams being concreted over, leaving rivers with no natural outlet to the sea. A lack of anti-flooding measures exacerbated the disaster.

A network of streams in the foothills of the mountain where the neighbourhoods are located has been paved over in recent decades, including a stretch of riverbed where municipal authorities have constructed buildings.

“The tragedy is that in 1996 we had two victims in the same area [of Mandra] precisely because the flow of water had been blocked,” said Dimitris Papanikolaou, emeritus professor of geology at Athens University.