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A church in the centre of L'Aquila, Italy, which was hit by an earthquake in April, 2009.
A church in the centre of L'Aquila, Italy, which was hit by an earthquake in April, 2009.

L'Aquila still a ghost town Add to ...

Three months after the earthquake that killed 300 people, the heart of L'Aquila is still a ghost town.

The residents are absent not because the streets have been cleared to make room for the walking tours of the Group of Eight leaders, but because the repair effort has been exceedingly slow and no one has been allowed to return to their homes.

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The mayor, Massimo Cialente, is not happy. In a recent interview on Italian state TV, he said Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and host of the G8 summit, is failing to live up to his promises of generous financial reconstruction aid.

His city, he said, is vanishing into a "financial black hole." Once the G8 leaders leave, L'Aquila will be forgotten, he fears.

The medieval city of L'Aquila (population 68,000) was struck by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake at 3:32 in the morning of April 6. The quake was powerful enough to shake buildings in Rome, about 100 kilometres to the southwest. At first, the death estimates were low. But rescue workers soon realized that the collapsed buildings had trapped and crushed a lot of people. Eighteen students died when a shoddily-built modern university residence in the centre effectively imploded.

Local and national rescue workers moved quickly to prop up the damaged building and move some 50,000 residents into tent cities and regional hotels. Some 5,500 blue tents and 45,000 beds were delivered. The tents still circle the city; about 25,000 people are living in them and have no idea when they will move back.

As a gesture of support and sympathy, Mr. Berlusconi made more than a dozen visits to L'Aquila in the weeks after the earthquake. Later he moved the G8 summit site from Sardinia to L'Aquila. If the switch was designed to solicit donations from the G8 countries, it appears to be working.

On Wednesday, prime minister Stephen Harper made his way through a street still cluttered with rubble to announce a $5-million (Canadian) donation for the construction of a youth centre at the University of L'Aquila. It will contain a library, gym and computer facilities. "The people of Canada, and Canadians of Italian descent, are proud to stand with the people of Italy as they rebuild after this tragic disaster," he said.

Maurizio Bevilaqua, the Liberal MP who was born about an hour's drive east of L'Aquila, was present for the donation ceremony. He called it a "symbolic gesture," noting that the estimated bill to repair L'Aquila could run as high as US$16-billion.

Another Canadian visitor of Italian descent, Dean Del Mastro, a Tory MP from Peterborough, Ont., suggested L'Aquila's reconstruction should not be purely an Italian effort. "What this is about is a legacy file," he said. "It's something for generations to come. People will remember. As Canadians, we went through this with the Italians."

On the same day, Mr. Berlusconi took German Chancellor Angela Merkel through the small town of Onna, which was almost completely destroyed by the earthquake. Forty-one people - more than 10 per cent of Onna's population - were killed.

The German government has pledged to rebuild the town, partly as compensation for a Second World War atrocity, in which 16 residents were executed by German troops. The 270 quake survivors will move into temporary houses in September while Onna is rebuilt, an effort that is expected to take three years or longer.

U.S. president Barrack Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev were also scheduled to visit L'Aquila's ruins on Wednesday.

With files from Brian Laghi

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