Italy earthquakes: Rebuilding homes and lives

By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Finale Emilia

Image source, Getty Images

A series of earthquakes and aftershocks struck central and northern Italy last month, leaving more than 20 people dead and thousands homeless. How are the residents coping now?

The towns and villages north of Bologna lie on the flatlands of the Po Valley.

For thousands of years the great river has laid down layer after layer of fertile soil. And now the country roads that wind across the plain take you through some of Italy's finest farmland.

All around fields stretch away lush and green and thick with crops.

And the people who live in the old farmhouses normally count themselves lucky.

They have prospered here. For generations they have looked after the land and it has looked after them.

But now suddenly this rich earth beneath their feet has delivered a series of shocking blows.

In the hours after that first quake, in a little place called Finale Emilia, it was immediately clear that the ground was yet to settle.

We had only just arrived in the main street when there was a powerful aftershock.

The strangest, juddering sensation, and a kind of groaning sound - easy to imagine that it rose from the restless earth itself.

But perhaps it just came from the buildings rocking on their foundations, walls grinding, doors shuddering, windows rattling.

Then we could hear masonry crashing into nearby streets and walking through them moments later we picked our way between mounds of rubble-strewn across pavements.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
An aftershock destroyed the remaining part of the clocktower

In a corner of a piazza, a fine old clocktower had been split in two, sliced right down the middle.

High up on the ancient bricks you could still see the clock-face with its Roman numerals, but only half of it. The rest had fallen away when much of the tower collapsed.

Then suddenly there was another hammering aftershock - and right in front of us all that remained of the building came down in a torrent of bricks and timbers.

A tower had stood on the edge of that piazza for almost 800 years - since the days of the Crusades.

The slightly modernised version that I had seen in its last moments had been there since 1526.

A bit of history had disappeared in a matter of moments, just turned to dust on the wind.

And all across the region some 600 older, weaker buildings - churches, fortresses, monuments - lie cracked and battered, or half collapsed.

It is true that many are treasures from the Middle Ages, but in the end they are just buildings. And meanwhile the people who live around them have been enduring some of the most frightening moments of their lives.

Laura Ferrari is an older woman - a cleaning lady and she was unlucky enough to be standing on a chair, doing some windows, when the second quake struck.

"It was like a bomb," she said. In the heaving, lurching, chaos she could not reach the door.

"The room was dancing. And I danced too, like a ballerina."

When it was over, the phone network was down and there was a long, desperate wait before she could make sure her children were safe.

I met Laura that evening, as she sat under some trees outside her house.

And that night she would not be going up the steps, lined with flowers, to her front door.

"Maybe there'll be more tremors," she said. "Maybe the house will collapse, maybe we'll all be trapped."

She had rigged up a bed in a shed in the back garden.

But she will not have slept much. A colossal machine armed with a huge claw began tearing down a nearby office block.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Many people affected by the quakes are using tents as a temporary home

It was so badly damaged it was safest to demolish it fast.

And so, far into the night, in her shed, Laura will have lain listening to the town echo to the pounding and crashing as the wreckers went to work.

A little earlier, in the gathering darkness of the evening, I had watched a tall thin chap called Daniele come striding down a street.

He was wearing a yellow helmet. He was covered in dust and he was exhausted.

He was from an Alpine rescue team, and he had come from the far away mountains to help and worked all day alongside firemen searching the rubble of a collapsed house just up the road.

It belonged to a 65-year old woman called Liviana Latini. She had stayed away from it after the first quake and only gone back to pick up some clothes when the second one struck bringing the building down around her.

The rescue workers found her trapped in her sitting room beneath the wreckage of the floor above.

Daniele was smiling as he told me they had managed to bring her out alive and conscious. But it would turn out that those 12 hours buried in the ruins of her home had been too much for Liviana Latini.

She died some days later in hospital.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 11:30 BST.

Second 30-minute programme on Thursdays, 11:00 BST (some weeks only).

BBC World Service:

Hear daily 10-minute editions Monday to Friday, repeated through the day, also available to listen online.

More on this story