by Alessandra Cardone
The sound of electric drills and a few heavy machineries filled the silence surrounding central Italy’s old town of L’Aquila in a typical weekday morning.
A bulldozer was demolishing a dilapidated building just opposite the 13th-century church of San Pietro a Coppito and its partially collapsed masonry bell tower, which were instead under massive restoration works.
Construction workers popped up from old alleys, scaffoldings, and front doors, moving building materials and rubble, fixing damaged structures, or digging trenches for laying new water mains, gas service pipes, and optical fiber.
The very core of L’Aquila historic centre would otherwise remain quite empty of people, but for them: most houses were not lived in yet, and only few dozens shops and bars reopened even now.
Six years after a devastating earthquake killed 309 people in April 2009, this mid-sized medieval city of about 70,000 residents in central Italy was still struggling to recover fully, and ever more to restore its past beauty, and its identity with it.
Yet, reconstruction has started moving forward.
Some 23,514 buildings underwent reconstruction works up to October 2014, and 13,661 of these interventions were finished, according to latest data by the city council.
The cost of these works amounted to 3.65 billion euros overall.
“Reconstruction is over 90 percent in suburbs and modern areas outside the medieval walls surrounding the city. In the historic centre within the walls, it has reached 25 to 30 percent (of damaged buildings) overall,” L’Aquila reconstruction councillor Pietro Di Stefano told Xinhua.
Much hard work would still be necessary in the old town, since most buildings are ancient and of historic interest, according to the councillor.
“Many buildings in the old town date back to between the 14th and the 18th centuries,” he said. “Restoring them requires both a long bureaucratic procedure to authorize the project, due to Italy’s laws protecting the national cultural heritage, and a delicate and skillful work on their structures.”
In the most inner circle of the historic centre, the so-called “red-zone” that was declared totally inaccessible after the quake, reconstruction would not exceed 10 percent, Di Stefano acknowledged.
Beside the complexity of the intervention, other factors would explain this delay in restoration: the heavy red tape hampering Italy’s public machine, a discontinuity of the public funding in the years soon after the quake, and some corruption scandals.
These latest cases included former members of the city council suspected to take bribes, and local entrepreneurs and professionals arrested for alleged mafia-linked extortion, and bid rigging.
All these judicial cases have yet to be addressed in court. Meanwhile, the lack of public funding seemed to have been solved.
“We have been in great difficulty until last year, since funds were allocated from time to time and the intervention planning was thus hindered,” Di Stefano explained. “Now, after the government approved the 2014 budget law, some 5.1 billion euros have been allocated up to 2020 for L’Aquila and the surrounding municipalities affected.”
Public funds would now be enough, city officials said. Yet, the mayor of L’Aquila Massimo Cialente and the whole city council repeatedly called on the government to provide more public staff, or more money to hire new employees.
More people would be needed to both process all reconstruction projects more swiftly, and better check the people and companies involved in those projects were fully free of the suspicion of corruption or mafia links.
Meanwhile, also the figures concerning L’Aquila’s displaced population showed both lights and shadows.
Over 50,000 people were estimated homeless after the quake in 2009. Now, some 12,500 of them have remained in the temporary housing provided by the government at the outskirts of the city or in near-by areas. The rest have returned to their homes.
Most of those 12,500 were people residing in the “red-zone,” where most buildings still await restoration.
Riccardo Iorio, a psychology student of 30, was one of them. “The quake changed my life completely,” he told Xinhua.
“In 2009, my life was like ‘gold’: my mother had a successful shoe shop, I had good money from my work in pubs and nightclubs, and I also had good results in my university’s exams,” Iorio explained while working as a bartender in an old town’s caf?.
“At 24, I was ready to buy a house in the old centre… Then, the quake came.”
Now, he was still attending university, but the focus of his life has shifted and so has his character.
“I feel the quake and all the following troubles have sharpened me. I feel like a sword that has been strongly honed with a stone, and it is like I could endure any kind of problem,” he said.
Yet, he might not really endure to spend the rest of his life in L’Aquila.
“It might be, but only if L’Aquila will manage to return to how it was before the quake,” he said.
“I am not talking about the material restoration, but about the city’s social fabric, and the life as it was here in the historical centre before the quake, binding all people together”.
To achieve this ultimate goal to return L’Aquila to its previous life and identity, local authorities believed restoring and preserving the buildings as they were before the quake was crucial.
The identity of the city and of its people was seen as inseparable, and despite this choice played an evident key role in making the reconstruction more difficult, most of local residents were also defiant on this goal.
“Tearing down everything and rebuild anew would have been much easier, it is true, but would also have been a ‘crime’,” the reconstruction councillor said. “These ancient buildings are our treasure. Can you imagine visiting Rome and find a modern mirrored skyscraper instead of the Colosseum? Or rebuilding the Great Wall of China anew?”
The city council recently put the possible deadline for the reconstruction of L’Aquila historic center, all but the red-zone, by 2017, and the whole city by 2020.
Would not such a target be even more daunting, under the conservative approach taken?
“It takes more time and more attention. Yet, we can manage it if we receive enough staff reinforcements. After all, we are defending the dignity and history of people,” Di Stefano said. (1 euro = 1.13 U.S. Dollars) Enditem