Music blares from a sidewalk café on the main square of L’Aquila in the south-central Italian province of Abruzzo on an otherwise quiet Saturday morning. The music is not celebratory or joyous. It is meant to drown out the deafening sound of silence that has overtaken this once-vibrant city since it was destroyed by a 6.3 scale earthquake in April 2009 that killed 309 people. “We are in a dead city,” says Natalia Nurzia, whose family has owned the Nurzia coffee bar on the main square since 1835. “The music gives the impression that there is still life here.”
It is an inarguable fact that L’Aquila’s historic center is a ghost town. Tattered white mesh netting wafts in the wind, its shreds barely tied to rusting scaffolding that covers more than 90 percent of the edifices in the old city center. The buildings under metal braces will be repaired; those jacked up with wooden planks will likely not. The wood has been affixed to window frames on buildings that have no roofs, doors or life inside, holding them together until they can be torn down. There is something almost Pompeian about peering through the broken windows of L’Aquila’s dead center. It is a glimpse at life exactly as it was at 3:32 am on April 6, 2009 when the earthquake stopped time. Mattresses are still covered with bed sheets and closets are filled with clothes. There are even dead flowers on some of the kitchen tables.
But it’s not just the houses that were abandoned that fateful morning. The people still left in L’Aquila— 20,000 of the 70,000 or more residents have moved away permanently since the earthquake—feel abandoned, too. The remaining displaced residents now live in temporary housing communities , 13 in all, known as “new towns” in the foothills of the city. Much of the money meant to restore the center and rebuild the houses has gone instead to relocate the residents. The ‘new town’ houses are not so new anymore. Most have mature gardens and tall trees despite the fact they are nothing more than prefabricated structures. “This is home now,” Maria Grazia Visconti told The Daily Beast as she walked her dog along one of the “new town” streets. “I wouldn’t go back to the center now. It will never feel safe to me.”
Last week, an Italian appellate court overturned the 2012 manslaughter convictions of six of seven scientists who had been found guilty for assuring the people of L’Aquila that ‘the big one’ wasn’t imminent back in April 2009 after hundreds of rumbling tremors had been shaking the ground for weeks. The reversal shocked those who felt betrayed by the scientists, and who yelled “shame, shame” when the scientists were free.
The seven scientists and experts were part of a special commission that met to discuss the rise in seismic activity prior to April 2009, after which they assured the population that there was nothing to worry about, even telling them to go home and have a nice glass of red wine to relax. The original convicting court ruled that the false sense of security proved deadly to many who didn’t flee their homes because “the scientists told them it was safe.”
Only one man’s conviction was upheld, that of Bernardo De Bernardinis, then a deputy director of Italy’s civil protection agency. De Bernardinis had been the mouthpiece for the commission. His six-year sentence was reduced to two years, which he won’t have to serve. “The scientific community assures me that the situation is good because of the continuous discharge of energy,” De Bernardinis told the worried population days before the earthquake struck, implying that the tremors somehow released the pressure building underground. Not only was the science bad, but the reassurance from a highly-regarded civil protection authority proved fatal for many.
But even though most of the scientists are no longer guilty in the court of law, there is still plenty of blame to go around, if not for the earthquake itself, for the fact that L’Aquila is still a rubble heap. Almost six years after the deadly quake, little of the money pledged to rebuild the broken city has been anted up. At the time of the disaster, people from all over the world vowed to help. Pop star Madonna, whose grandparents were born in a village near L’Aquila, led the call, promising to give $500,000 to help rebuild damaged buildings. According to Fernando Caparso the mayor of Pacentro where Madonna’s ancestors are from who announced Madonna’s generous gift at the time, her pledge has not been received, though he did say he held out hope.
Then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi even moved the G8 summit to L’Aquila in July 2009 from the island of Sardinia to try to divert funds to the stricken area and gin up support for rebuilding efforts. Almost every country present pledged to either adopt a church or rebuild a school. At the time, French first lady Carla Bruni, who is Italian, also promised her own money to fix up a hospital that had crumbled in the quake. “I’ll come back on my own after the summit,” Bruni said at the time. “I’ll come back to see the work on the hospital and that of all these people who have shown so much courage.” No one has seen her there since.
Of the area’s 105 churches, 99 were severely damaged. Shortly after the quake, the Italian culture ministry estimated it would take €30 million to rebuild the city’s treasures. It has taken more than that so far to just relocate the population and shore up the buildings. No schools, churches or hospitals have been rebuilt yet, though temporary structures are now permanent fixtures on the landscape.
Now the restructuring plans call for more than €525 million. The Italian culture ministry is still calling for bids for anyone who wants to adopt a church to fix in what is a desperate plea for help. Each time a roof is patched or a church is open for mass, Father Domenico Marcocci the cultural director of the L’Aquila diocese calls it a miracle. “They won’t all be repaired in my lifetime,” he told The Daily Beast. “And we only have the good will of others to rely on.”
But not everyone’s good will has paid off. President Barack Obama, on a tour of the disaster zone during the 2009 post-quake summit promised $4.5 million to restore the church of Santa Maria Paganica, a few miles from the L’Aquila city center. The money never came. Today the church is wrapped in scaffolding and metal ribbons are holding its façade in place until someone pays to repair it. It is back on Italy’s culture ministry’s list of churches to adopt. The American embassy in Rome had no information on the matter.
The Spanish government also vowed at the time to restore the city’s 15th-century Spanish Castle that housed the national Abruzzo museum, which is now housed in storage units in Rome. That money never came either, so the Italian government put aside €14 million to do the work themselves. The Spanish embassy in Rome could not immediately address the lack of funds.
France, Germany and Russia are a few of G8 countries that have so far made good on their pledges. The French government was the first to come through, giving €3.35 million to help restore the church of Santa Maria del Suffragio also known as the church of the Anime Sante on L’Aquila’s main square, though work so far has been primarily focused on shoring up the structure and saving what pieces of the collapsed dome can be used in the restoration. The dome could be rebuilt by 2021 if work stays on schedule, according to workers at the site.
Last summer the oratorio of Oratorio San Giuseppe Dei Minimi in L’Aquila’s historical center opened with an inaugural concert thanks to the government of Kazakhstan’s donation of €1.7 million.
Canada has also promised more €3 million to build a student center to replace the one that collapsed in the quake, killing eight students. And Japan pledged a half a million euro towards various infrastructure projects, according to Italy’s civil protection authority that keeps a tally of donations. Australia and the World Monuments Fund are each expected to give several million to restore churches, though the timing has yet to be negotiated, a spokesperson for Italy’s culture ministry told The Daily Beast.
In October 2013, German builders finally opened their construction site in the largely demolished L’Aquila suburb of Onna—where 38 people died when every building in the town collapsed—thanks to a €3.5 million pledge that took five years to deliver. The donation is especially poignant because the 13th-century church where the money will go is where German troops killed 17 Italians during World War II in a retaliation attack. The Onna church is expected to take up to 12 years to restore. The town itself will likely never rise again. In its place are rows of flat temporary houses and a wood-framed church with the bell from the destroyed one housed in a makeshift bell tower.
Russia has been the most generous donor of all, giving more than €7 million to restore the church of San Gregorio Magno in L’Aquila and the 16th century Palazzo Ardinghelli noble palace in Paganica, around the corner from the church the American government promised, then so far failed to restore.
But even if the promised money does finally arrive, there is scant guarantee it will be used appropriately. Last June, five officials including Fabrizio Magani, the deputy for L’Aquila’s regional culture ministry were arrested on corruption charges for alleged mishandling of restoration funds. The charges included corruption, perjury, bid-fixing and fraud. Last January, the vice-mayor of L’Aquila Roberto Riga was forced to resign after accusations of bribery in awarding building contracts.
L’Aquila’s most recent mayor Massimo Cialente, who resigned in June when most of his cabinet was indicted for corruption but who may consider taking the job again, said he quit because he was “a mayor with no city.” He told The Daily Beast that his city was like a war zone. “It was like being the mayor of Kabul,” he said. “There are only forces trying to defeat us, none trying to help.” It just takes a walk through L’Aquila’s dead town center to prove his point.