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Amatrice: One year after the devastation

Lewis Sanders IV
August 24, 2017

A year after the deadly earthquake, popular committees have done their best to pressure authorities on reconstruction efforts. But the process continues to fall short of survivors' dreams for their homeland.

Piles of rubble in the exclusion zone in the center of Amatrice
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M.Cavallari

At 3:36 a.m., the ground began to tremble. Within a moment, the walls succumbed to violent seizures. My wife screamed, instructing me to evacuate the building as quickly as possible. I didn't know what was happening. All I heard was terremoto, terremoto - "earthquake, earthquake" - accompanied by a low rumble and the sound of glass clinging, the floor shaking beneath me.

What felt like minutes but amounted to seconds later, we were out of the building, dogs barking and house alarms piercing an otherwise silent night. My father-in-law looked over to me. "This isn't going to be good," he said, minutes before a powerful aftershock. Even 50 kilometers from the epicenter, we were shaken by the quake just like thousands in the area.

Read more: Italy after the earthquake: Why has God done this to us?

On August 24, 2016, 299 people were killed and nearly 400 others injured when a magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck a remote area straddling Italy's picturesque regions of Lazio, Marche, Umbria and Abruzzo.

A year ago, following a day of reporting on an event that would define the area's future, my father-in-law looked over to me in a cafe near Arquata del Tronto. "These quaint villages will never survive this day," he said, with a glimmer of hope in his eyes that sought to betray his prognosis. But a year on, his words appear to describe the prospect of reconstruction and the area's future.

DW drone footage shows Amatrice

'War zone'

Despite promises from government officials that reconstruction would occur in a swift and orderly manner in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, little has been accomplished since the tragic event.

Only 8.57 percent of rubble has been removed from areas affected by the August 24 and October 30 quakes, according to environmental nonprofit organization Legambiente, with up to 2.4 million tons of debris that have yet to be dealt with.

Read more: Post-quake Italy considers funeral mass for earthquake victims in Amatrice

Arriving in Arquata del Tronto last year, one of the medieval towns flattened by the quake, was an unsettling moment. What once were unique medieval buildings that dotted the village were now masses of indistinguishable rubble.

Rescue workers accompanied by search and rescue dogs ventured into that debris, the despair in their eyes nearly betraying the hope of finding more survivors. One of the rescue workers told DW that morning that hundreds were still missing, but they would continue searching until they found every single inhabitant.

"Some of the affected areas look like a war zone. It seems [like the destruction] in Aleppo," Guido Castelli, the mayor of Ascoli Piceno, the seat of government for the province where Arquata del Tronto is located, told DW then.

In Arquata del Tronto, rescue workers rushed into action to find survivors, using search and rescue canines to find those buried beneath the rubble
In Arquata del Tronto, rescue workers rushed into action to find survivors, using search and rescue canines to find those buried beneath the rubble Image: DW/L. Sanders

Enduring hazards

Survivors have since organized popular committees to demand transparency and accountability on the part of authorities responsible for reconstruction. They have staged protests in the Italian capital of Rome, drawing hundreds of supporters. Amatrice, one of the worst-hit towns, is located in Lazio, the same region as Rome.

Angered by the lack of action, the Civic Committee 3 and 36 has pressured authorities to do more for Amatrice and the surrounding villages. Notably, they have called for increased safety measures to protect the community, especially those most at risk.

"It is inevitable that during the removal of rubble … houses and the school are exposed to peak concentrations of pollutants much higher than lawful limits," said the committee's statement.

The committee pointed to the long-term affect that asbestos fibers can have on the local population, saying they can cause "serious chronic diseases and are potent carcinogens."

"But no one will know about that, because no one is concerned with anticipating air quality monitoring in these sensitive areas."

Repeating history

In many ways, the future of Amatrice, Accumoli, Arquata del Tronto and the other towns and villages decimated by the earthquake rests somewhere between the willingness of its residents to continue to pressure authorities and the government's intention to rebuild.

In 2009, less than 30 kilometers away from Amatrice, a massive earthquake struck the historic city of L'Aquila, leaving more than 300 people dead and hundreds of others injured and displaced.

In 2017, L'Aquila's skyline is still littered with cranes that arrived with the beginning of reconstruction efforts launched eight years ago. But L'Aquila is the capital of the Abruzzo region. For the traditional villages affected by last year's earthquake, the lack of momentum and devastated infrastructure dampens the promise of reconstruction, if there ever was one.

2.4 million tons of debris and rubble remain in areas affected by last year's earthquake
2.4 million tons of debris and rubble remain in areas affected by last year's earthquakeImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M.Cavallari