A decade later, Italian city grapples with aftermath of deadly quake

The Italian city of L'Aquila and surrounding villages are still dealing with the aftermath of the powerful earthquake that struck in April 2009. Some residents have given up hope, but others are trying their best to believe they can one day return home.


It was at 3:32 am when a devastating 6.3-magnitude earthquake woke residents of the central Italian provincial capital of L'Aquila and its surrounding villages on April 6, 2009.
One of them was Paolo Paolucci, a resident of the small village of Onna, who managed to scramble to safety over the roof of his collapsed house with his wife and children. He feverishly searched the ruins for his mother and sister until he understood that he should concentrate on the living.
"We conquered death," he says.
Three hundred and nine others in the L'Aquila region were not so lucky. Their deaths will be mourned on Saturday as Italy marks 10 years since the tragedy.
Feelings of loss and sadness will mingle with resentment as survivors recall everything that went wrong in the earthquake's aftermath. Efforts to rebuild have been mired by corruption scandals and opportunists who tried to profit from the catastrophe.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Onna's church in July 2009 - some two months after the quake - the ruins of its old walls were supported by massive wooden beams. Ten years later, the church is standing again, its bright stones radiant in the sun.
But across the street, the extent of the destruction from the powerful quake is still visible. The rooftops of the stone buildings are caved in, entire walls are missing. Residential buildings remain uninhabitable.
One reason that Merkel came to Onna's rescue is that, during World War II, Nazi troops murdered 17 civilians there. Merkel pledged 3 million euros (3.4 million dollars) in reconstruction aid as a way for the Germans to make amends. 
According to Paolucci, locals are very grateful. "The earthquake changed the entire relationship with the Germans," he says.
But for most, life in Onna has not yet returned to normal: Paolucci, a retiree who serves the community as an informal leader, is still living in a makeshift wooden house that was supposed to be an interim solution.
"The pain is still there," Paolucci says. "But there is also hope. In the end there is still the determination to go back home again."
In L'Aquila, the rebuilding effort has seen corruption scandals and people capitalizing on the catastrophe. The magazine L'Espresso calculated how much money was "burned up" in the period after the quake and before the reconstruction got underway. Take, for example, the scaffolding bars used for repairs: Each metal joint used to erect the temporary structures cost 27.50 euros after the quake. With 5 million joints used, the sum for these alone came to 137.5 million euros. 
More than 20 billion euros have gone into the reconstruction, but the old centre of of L'Aquila still resembles a massive construction site. Driving in from the countryside, one sees a good dozen construction cranes towering over the rooftops.
In the narrow streets of the city centre, the emptiness is tangible. A dense network of scaffolding between the buildings block one's view to the sky overhead; the air smells of paint and wet cement, carrying a light cloud of dust that leaves a dry taste on the tongue.
A nearby bed and breakfast called "Sound of Silence" seems to mock the neighbourhood: Except for the construction machinery, few people are around to make any sounds. The few apartment buildings that have been rebuilt are largely empty, the same of course applying to those damaged buildings still barricaded up. 
"It's a no-man's land," says a woman named Moira. She and her friend Gianluca only rarely come here, for what had once been the city centre now longer exists. And the couple also don't believe it will ever return. A few people have ventured back, opening up a cafe here, a restaurant there, and down the street, a shop for musical instruments.
But there are no customers in sight. The streets are filled only with construction workers with their vehicles. At night the area is dark and deserted, Moira says. Now, life in L'Aquila takes place at other sites on the city's drab outskirts.
Many Onna residents did not have to evacuate the village - they only moved a few streets away - but were also affected by trauma. One of the new streets going past a settlement of wooden houses has been named "Victims of the 6th of April" and another one "Reconstruction Street." Between the buildings there is a monument called "Madonna of Remembrance" that stands at the site where the bodies of the dead were first brought, Paolucci says.
The Madonna statue in the church of Onna is also a reminder of the quake. A few days after the catastrophe, Paolucci said, he took a look at the church and saw that the statue had withstood the destruction, unscathed. All the other saints' statues had fallen to the ground, he says.
Paolucci says he is often asked, "You, who are always among the saints and the Madonna, can you ask them where they were in the night between April 5 and 6?" Part of his answer is that he was running barefoot and in his pyjamas among the rubble, without suffering even a scratch. So miracles also happened that night. In a book recalling the earthquake, he writes: "We were supposed to be dead, but instead we are here to tell the story."


Saturday, April 6th 2019
By Lena Klimkeit,

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