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Firefighters retrieve a bell from a church in the small town of Rio, near Amatrice, central Italy, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. Bulldozers with huge claws pulled down dangerously overhanging ledges Sunday in Italy's quake-devastated town of Amatrice as investigators worked to figure out if negligence or fraud in building codes had added to the quake's high death toll. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (Andrew Medichini/AP)
Firefighters retrieve a bell from a church in the small town of Rio, near Amatrice, central Italy, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. Bulldozers with huge claws pulled down dangerously overhanging ledges Sunday in Italy's quake-devastated town of Amatrice as investigators worked to figure out if negligence or fraud in building codes had added to the quake's high death toll. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Italian earthquake survivors fear their city won’t be rebuilt Add to ...

Marisa Di Tommaso is living like a refugee in her own country. Wednesday’s earthquake in Amatrice, in central Italy, wrecked her house and she and her husband now live in a camp of big blue tents provided by a volunteer agency.

Only a few hundred metres away, Amatrice lays in ruins, as if hit by a carpet-bombing air raid, and she wonders whether it will be rebuilt, as Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has promised, and, if so, how quickly. If Amatrice’s renaissance takes as long as that of nearby L’Aquila, which was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2009, the 58-year-old school assistant knows she might be an old lady before she moves back into her home. She also knows that Amatrice may not be rebuilt.

“It’s sad to see our city die this way,” she said four days after the 6.2-magnitude earthquake hit Amatrice and more than a dozen nearby towns, killing at least 290, including entire families and a teenage boy with British and Canadian citizenship. “We can only hope, but Berlusconi said L’Aquila will be rebuilt and look at it.”

She was referring to the pledge made by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to rebuild L’Aquila, the capital of central Italy’s Abruzzo region, restoring its status as a baroque and medieval jewel replete with the latest earthquake-protection and communications technologies. Today, seven years after the L’Aquila earthquake, the historic centre is a ghost town and the city is mired in corruption scandals linked to the slow-motion and hideously expensive repair job.

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The Amatrice earthquake showed two sides of Italy.

The massive rescue effort, the survivors digging through the rubble with their bare hands to find buried friends, the quick arrival of volunteer groups from all over the country and the fundraising efforts from Italians living around the world showed Italy at its best.

The image of hard work and generosity, however, was tarnished by the announcement of an investigation by Italian magistrates into whether construction companies ignored building codes when restoring buildings such as schools, hospitals and churches.

One of them was the Romolo Capranica school in Amatrice where Ms. Di Tomasso worked. The school was restored in 2012, at the cost of about $1-million, to make it earthquake resistant, only to crumble like a house made of cardboard in the quake (the building was unoccupied at the time). Some of Amatrice’s 2,000 residents wonder whether the construction companies hired to overhaul public buildings, to make them safe from tremors, illegally cut costs or were under Mafia control.

Aware that the rebuilding of Amatrice and nearby towns could turn into a Mafia feeding frenzy, Franco Roberti, head of Italy’s anti-Mafia directorate, said that steps must be taken to ensure that any post-earthquake reconstruction is crime-free and adheres to the latest building codes. “There are risks, it is useless to hide it,” he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “And post-earthquake reconstruction is a tasty morsel for criminal organizations and committees.”

The reconstruction contracts awarded after the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia, east of Naples, which resulted in about 2,900 fatalities and an uninsured loss of $11.8-billion (U.S.) – in 1980 dollars, according to the German reinsurance company Munich Re – were infiltrated by Mafia contracts, and Mafia involvement is suspected in some of the L’Aquila reconstruction contracts.

Amatrice residents hope to be spared from the fate of L’Aquila, which is located about 50 kilometres south of Amatrice, in the earthquake-prone Apennine Mountains.

It once had a vibrant city centre. But on a late Saturday afternoon, when the city of 70,000 would normally be clogged with thousands of shoppers, students and tourists, the streets were virtually empty. Nine in 10 shops have yet to reopen since the earthquake and most of the once-handsome buildings and palaces are clad in scaffolding.

“L’Aquila always had a great life in the centre,” said Fabrizio Mancini, a local high school law teacher. “Today, it’s dead. I just hope that Amatrice learns from the errors of L’Aquila.”

Instead of immediately launching into efforts to rebuild the centre of L’Aquila, Mr. Berlusconi’s plans saw the construction of “new towns” outside the city. The contracts were infiltrated by organized crime and the result was shoddily built and very expensive housing units, some of which are already rotting. The construction of suburbs also meant that former residents of the historic centre would not return. Almost no one lives in central L’Aquila. “It will be another 15 years for the city to come back to life,” Mr. Mancini said.

L’Aquila’s deputy mayor, Nicola Trifuoggi, is a former Mafia investigating judge who was hauled out of retirement two years ago to help ensure the city-centre reconstruction projects are not controlled by Mafia interests.

It’s too early to judge whether Amatrice will be entirely or partly rebuilt or not rebuilt at all. On the weekend, as the first mass funerals were held and as hopes of finding any more survivors vanished, rescue teams and their machines were busy clearing the streets of rubble and trying to find some of the 10 victims still listed as missing. Mr. Renzi gave the residents some hope by insisting that Amatrice and the other devastated towns would come back to life. “Amatrice will determine which face Italy is capable of showing,” he said on the day after the tragedy.

But some Amatrice residents aren’t buying the Prime Minister’s line. One is Demir Shkrela, 34, an Albanian-born bricklayer who has lived in Amatrice for a decade. When the earthquake hit in the early hours of Wednesday, he, his wife and their two young children were on the third floor of their rented apartment in the historic centre. As the interior of the building was collapsing around them – the exterior, oddly, remained largely intact – Mr. Shrekla and grabbed his children and ran. They all survived – “a miracle,” he said.

Now they’re living in a tent. “I don’t think Amatrice will be reconstructed,” he said. “There’s nothing left. It’s a nightmare. I will return to Albania.”

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