Thursday, May 31, 2012

Earthquakes in northern Italy

A collapsed building is seen in Cavezzo, northern Italy, after another tremor hit the area. 
Picture: Gianfilippo Oggioni AP
MORE than 14,000 people in northern Italy were forced to abandon their quake-damaged homes, with many of them having to sleep outdoors, after the region's second fatal tremor in less than two weeks.  (
I was in Padova Tuesday when the 5.8 earthquake shuddered its way through the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, an area that includes Bologna, Modena and Parma, where my friends Massimo, Marco and Renata live. I had spent the night in an old villa south of Padova, and the windows of the villa shook just walking across the room. What would it be like in an earthquake? If I had stayed there two hours longer, I would know. Instead, I had taken an early bus back to Padova and I was standing in front of the Duomo at 9 a.m. that morning, writing in my journal, waiting for the Battistero to open so I could view its frescoes before leaving town.

Suddenly, people were rushing out of nearby city buildings with worried faces, chattering animatedly about le scosse (tremors), the latest in a series of earthquakes that have occurred over the past two weeks. Oddly, I felt nothing at all from the tremor, but in the old buildings of Padova, beds and bookcases were shaking and windows were rattling, striking fear in the hearts of one and all. As I walked around the centro storico, it seemed everyone had their cell phones in hand, checking on loved ones, sharing their fears. “L’hai sentito” (Did you feel it?)

I was on my way to pick up my suitcase at the home of a friend on the fourth floor of a nearby apartment building, and when I arrived, the family had many stories to share of their experiences that morning. Marisa’s chandeliers, made of Murano glass, swayed like a pendulum during the tremor, and eyes were still watching them, waiting for the next one to hit. Marisa’s son called from Milan with the news that trains were not running, which would compromise my return to Rome. I needed to get back that day, and my mind started spinning, wondering what alternative plans I might be able to make. Buses? A flight? We checked the Trenitalia (train) website, and discovered that all trains in Northern Italy had been suspended. Several suggestions were offered about what to do next, but I decided it would be best to get to the station to see what my options might be.

As expected, there was chaos at the train station. Trains would be delayed for at least three hours while the tracks were evaluated for their safety. I was in no real hurry, as long as I got to Rome before my friend had to leave for Sweden the next day. I settled in to wait, watching others who stood in long lines, trying to make alternate plans for their travels. In the end, I only had to wait two hours for my train, and by that time so many people had given up or made other plans that the Eurostar Frecciargento train, almost always full, was nearly empty. (I’d bought my ticket online several weeks in advance, which provided a 20% discount on the fare.) I arrived in Rome without incident after a relaxing three-hour ride.

Later that evening, I got a report from Massimo about their experience of the earthquake in Bologna. Schools were closed and workers were sent home. I had a chance to talk to Marco on Skype the next day: in Modena, the damages were much worse. His family had decided to send their daughter and barely 1-month old granddaughter to Rome for safety. Marco was working overtime in a nearby hospital to deal with casualties, and was distraught with concern for his family, as well as the damage to his beloved city. Churches, factories, apartment houses and barns had collapsed all over the region.

Though a 5.8  tremor should not cause a great deal of damage when cities are built to meet seismic-safety standards or retrofitted to make them resilient, Italy has several disadvantages: many of its buildings are centuries old and newer construction has been compromised by corrupt building contractors, using inferior materials. In addition, fatalism plagues the Italian mindset, which predisposes them to accept that all things and events are inevitable. With this frame of reference, progress is hampered, and things that could be changed or improved are left undone. In contrast, a 6.1 earthquake struck Japan last week, but there was no significant damage. Since Italy is one of the most-earthquake prone places in the world, will she learn from these tragedies, and plan for a more secure future? It remains to be seen.

As for damages to Italy's food production, the May 20 earthquake  has caused at least 500 million euros of damage to agriculture. One farmers' association estimated the cost by calculating the loss of one million wheels of the region's famous Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan) and Grana Padano cheeses, along with damage to farm buildings, machinery and the loss of animals. In this week's earthquake, it's been estimated there will be 15 million euros damage to the carefully controlled production of Modena's aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar), famous the world over. In a country already struggling with a profound economic crisis, these new blows to the economy will only add to Italy's efforts to recover from the crisis.

one of  the many thousands of damaged wheels of  cheese
To be honest, I was ready to leave northern Italy, as I felt helpless to counteract the panic and fear that was prevalent around me. And no wonder: last night another 32 tremors were felt in Modena. Mother Nature threw a temper tantrum here in Zagarolo last week as well, flattening the field of spelt down the street during a hailstorm. But all is calm here today, and my last week in Italy looks to be a tranquil one. In the meantime, I'm concerned for the safety and well-being of my friends up north.

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