On the evening of 26 October 2016, Federico Rinaldi was building a fire before sitting down to have dinner with his family in their flat on the second floor of a stone-built 19th-century cottage in Ussita, when the world around him started shaking. Suddenly the electricity went out and everything went black.
“I stood there, blind, with pieces of wood in my hands,” recalls Rinaldi. “For a brief moment my only thought was the destruction.”
The shaking grew more violent and the noise grew louder. Rinaldi scrambled to escape the building, but his exit was impeded by falling plaster and the door wouldn’t open because the frame had buckled. Eventually he managed to get outside where his wife and children were waiting for him.
They hadn’t been back home long since the previous quake, in August. By the time the October earthquake – which registered 5.4 on the Richter scale – had finished, Rinaldi’s house was barely standing. Two hours later a further quake of 5.9 magnitude struck and four days after that a 6.5 magnitude quake shook Perugia.
Rinaldi and his family were among 36,000* people in 131 different towns in the heart of Italy who lost their homes in the quakes, which covered an area as large as Greater London.
Civil Protection – the government’s emergency response department – has so far declared almost 17,000 private buildings, 688 schools and 945 public buildings unusable after the recent quakes, and, according to a report submitted to the European Union, the damage incurred will take €23.5bn (£20.1bn) to rectify.
The big picture
The whole area around the Apennine mountains is constantly exposed to earthquakes
Property Week visited the region to find out what is being done to rebuild the devastated communities – and why they were so vulnerable in the first place.
That the quakes wreaked so much havoc is largely down to the poor state of many buildings. Throughout Italy, 2.1 million residential buildings are in what building experts consider to be a poor or mediocre state and seven million homes were built before the law on anti-seismic development came into force in 1974.
As the timeline based on data from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology shows, Apennine mountains near Rome are a seismically active territory. This means that earthquakes are a long-existing issue for the inhabitants.
Fully 44% of Italian land is at high seismic risk, according to data from the National Builders’ Association and the Centre for Economic, Sociological and Market Research (ANCE/CRESME). The mountainous nature of the affected areas increases the impact of quakes on buildings, adds Laura Bonito, geological sciences PhD student at the University of Sannio at Benevento.
“Geological and topographic features such as soft soil or steep slopes contribute to the amplification of seismic shaking,” she explains.
Working alongside Gerardo Grelle, a research fellow at La Sapienza University, Bonito has produced prediction maps of this amplification phenomenon. But while it is possible to predict the extent of the damage caused by an earthquake, it’s not possible to predict when one will strike.
This is the cause of endless frustration for locals such as Giovanni Lattanzi, the manager of humanitarian organisation Group of Human Solidarity (GUS).
“Either we accept earthquakes are part of our lives, or every time it hits us we will have to stop our lives and restart them again and again,” says Lattanzi. He lost his home, too – or is about to. The building, in Macerata, which was built by his great-grandfather, still stands thanks to stabilisation works undertaken following a previous earthquake, but will need to be demolished and rebuilt from scratch out of wood.
“Thinking about demolishing your own history is sad, but it is necessary,” says Lattanzi.
He does not believe the Italian government is doing enough, quickly enough, to assist the towns affected by the tragedy. Local authorities, in particular, should be doing more to help people who have been displaced, he says.
Almost five months after Rinaldi and thousands like him were forced to flee their homes, towns like Ussita are still deserted. Army patrols are dotted around the towns in the quake zone to deter pillaging and to ensure people don’t try to move back to buildings that are unsafe for human habitation.
Many of the displaced moved to makeshift camps in the immediate aftermath of the quake, but as winter kicked in they moved into hotels or adapted shipping containers for temporary shelter. They will continue to live in these spaces until emergency housing is provided.
Rinaldi currently lives in a flat in the seaside town of Porto Recanati around 90 minutes from Ussita. Since the quake occurred he has only been allowed back to the cottage to collect belongings he left behind. He is still waiting to hear when he will be able to go back and rebuild his home.
It could be a long time before that happens. Inspection work of the damage carried out by Civil Protection, architects and engineers hasn’t been completed yet. While more than 100,000 buildings have been surveyed by a team of engineers and architects in the past five months, there are still another 91,000 to go*.
The clean-up effort has only just begun and some of the displaced former residents fear that the longer this process goes on, the smaller the chances of them ever returning to their homes will be. The lives of many of the families re-homed in hotels along the Adriatic Coast are already returning to some semblance of normality, with children attending local schools, and there is a real risk of heightened levels of depopulation in their former home towns, which were already suffering from dwindling numbers.
Figures from the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat) show that 28.3% of the population in towns surrounding the Apennine mountains are 65 years-old or over – 6.3% higher than the average age of the population in the rest of the country.
One possible beacon of hope for the area is that the government is offering reconstruction subsidies, which could help to attract developers to the area to aid in the rebuilding process.
This process should not just be about rebuilding existing structures, according to Alessandro Martelli, engineer and head of the Anti-Seismic Systems International Society (ASSISi), which promotes the understanding of seismic protection methods.
“[The slogan] ‘We will reconstruct the buildings where they used to be and how they used to be’ is short-sighted,” argues Martelli. “Buildings die like people do. In Italy we tend to confuse what is old with what is ancient. People need to live where it is possible to live and we should not treat everything as if it is a monument to preserve.”
Martelli has experienced this first-hand after he developed an innovative way to reconstruct Gemona castle in Friuli, which was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1976. The castle no longer looks as it originally did, but it still stands and it is safe.
This type of reconstruction work is expensive and there are serious questions as to how much cash the authorities in the regions affected by the recent quakes can and will allocate for reconstruction.
Then there is the cost of prevention to factor in. The Italian government spent more than €121bn as a consequence of earthquakes between 1968 and 2014, according to figures from the National Engineering Council (CNI). A fund for prevention of seismic risk was set up in 2009 with an allocation of just €965m. However, the CNI estimates that it would cost €93bn to safeguard residential buildings in earthquake-affected areas.
Civil Protection head Fabrizio Curcio argues that a uniified approach is required to address the complex issue. “We need a risk culture involving everybody, from municipal administrators to citizens,” he says. “Knowledge is essential and is the first self-defence action we can take to create resilient communities.”
Time is of the essence. The more time that passes, the less likely it is that people displaced by the recent quakes will be able to ever return to their homes, and the region will be irrevocably changed. Whatever happens, some local residents are refusing to give up. Rinaldi says that despite the threat of future quakes he still intends to return to Ussita to rebuild his home – only this time with safer materials.
“If I could, I would return tomorrow,” he says.
“I can’t do without Ussita.”