When floodwaters gushed through the farming village of Metamorfosi in September, residents fled. Now they want to relocate their entire community, terrified it cannot survive another bout of extreme weather driven by climate change.
Metamorfosi nearly disappeared beneath the water as Storm Daniel, which wrought havoc across the Mediterranean, struck the central Thessaly region on September 4-7, turning it into an inland sea. Sixteen people were killed, including a man and his mother in Metamorfosi who drowned in their home.
Standing in his uninhabitable, mud-stained house two months after the disaster, 80-year-old farmer Vassilis Tsatsarelis – who saw Metamorfosi flood completely in 1953, 1994 and 2023 – is among many who want authorities to relocate his village to a safer spot.
“I want to leave,” he said. “Even though I was born here and grew up here, I want this for my grandchildren. So that they can settle somewhere where there won’t be any upheavals from the weather.”
A meeting point of four rivers and tributaries, Metamorfosi – which means transformation in Greek – sits on the lowest point of the Thessaly plain, Greece’s agricultural heartland.
This week residents will hold an informal vote on a proposal to erect new houses in the village of Palamas some 8 km away, on land granted by the municipality to which both villages belong.
Metamorfosi would likely keep its name, and locals would store farm machinery in the old buildings close to their fields.
Greece has some experience with planned relocation, such as of mountainous rural communities facing landslides in the 1960s and 70s, and more recently of communities near lignite plants.
Metamorfosi residents will take the proposal to the government, together with a study by the municipality’s civil engineering department citing “repeated flooding” and its geomorphology as reasons for the move. They believe they have a good chance the relocation will happen.
“We didn’t wake up one morning and say let’s relocate. It came from the nightmarish scenes we lived through that night,” said Petros Kontogiannis, the community president.
“Every time it rains, our village is at risk.”
Kontogiannis said anti-flood projects could take years so an overwhelming majority of residents wanted relocation.
The storm, which scientists linked to climate change, was the worst since records began in Greece a century ago. Many villagers were airlifted from rooftops.
Metamorfosi’s roughly 240 residents, mostly cotton farmers, have since moved in with relatives or rented in nearby towns. In November, village streets were littered with clothes and furniture. In untended fields, the cotton harvest was rotting.
“When I entered the house my heart went crack. I said to myself, Vassilis, your life is coming to an end, how will you live now?” said Tsatsarelis, whose home, fields and machinery were destroyed.
“If I live until next year, I will not be able to go through such an ordeal again.”
Pleading for change
Efthymis Lekkas, professor of disaster management and Greece’s top expert on the matter, said relocating places like Metamorfosi was feasible but a risk assessment of the new area was imperative to ensure safety and durability.
The full cost had not been calculated but it would not be prohibitive and could be partly covered via loans, he said.
In September, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told journalists the government was open to the idea of relocating communities but only if locals wanted it and it was backed by evidence that they cannot be protected from extreme flooding, “no matter what work we do.”
In Metamorfosi, as he checked his irrigation sprinkler swept a block away by flood water, 55-year-old farmer Thanasis Tsoukalas saw no alternative to relocating.
“We grew up here, we were born here, our parents’ graves are here, it’s our village,” he said. “But safety comes first. You cannot live with this insecurity all the time.”