Earthquakes in Italy: ‘We were snowed in with nowhere to run’

Irish people living in affected areas share their experience of yesterday’s tremors

Patricia Crotty with her husband and daughters: ‘Most of the areas at highest risk have been evacuated.’

Patricia Crotty with her husband and daughters: ‘Most of the areas at highest risk have been evacuated.’


Central Italy was hit again by earthquakes yesterday, for the third time in the last six months. Irish people living in the affected region have shared their experience of the tremors through the Irish Times Abroad Network.

Ed McHale: 'Within minutes we had emails and text messages enquiring about our safety'

My wife and I have retired to the Italian countryside in the western slopes of the Appenines, about 140km northeast of Rome and the same distance West of Amatrice and Norcia, the site of the devastating earthquakes of last August, October and again yesterday.

Yesterday morning our life followed the predictable pattern of cleaning and resetting the log stove and the central heating pellet stove and driving the 2km to the local village. We joined the usual group of locals and a retired Dutch couple, all of us now friends, for our weekly undemanding trek. Our walk took us across a long exposed ridge with a howling wind that that threatened to lift us off our feet. We did notice some small landslides of mud from the fields on the upper side of the track and two straggly trees had fallen across our path.

Arriving back in the village we crowded into the coffee bar. Coffee and chat proceeded without incident and we departed to get some groceries. In the vegetable shop we were astounded to learn that there had been a tremor ten minutes previously.  We then noticed the sounds of children in the schoolyard above us and learned that they had been ushered outside when the tremor was felt.

The coffee bar is located on a central height adjoining the original centre of the town which dates back to the 13th century, but no one there had felt this tremor. This was in sharp contrast to the earthquake in August when the residents of the historic centre had left their homes in the early hours and gathered in the village square, in their night attire. 

We returned to our home, which is a large traditional stone and wooden beams style house. The basement is encased in reinforced concrete forming the foundations of the building. This earthquake proofing is mandatory for all buildings since 1974 and was revised and improved in 2009. I sat at the ground floor dining table where I like to spread my reading material and use a computer while my wife was busy in the attached kitchen. I then had a strange and queasy feeling of inexplicable movement and realised, with some time lag, that the chair that I was sitting on was moving and not only the chair but indeed the floor. The water in a glass on the table was creating circular ripples and little splashes. As I surrendered to what I now understood to be a significant tremor I called to my wife was she aware of it. While she was only four or five metres away and standing at a counter she had not been aware but then she did notice it.

News of the event was practically instantaneous on the internet and news media. Within minutes we had emails and text messages enquiring about our safety.

We are not strangers to earth tremors as we lived in San Francisco for a few years when our two children were less than nine and six years old. The experience then of these unpredictable events were usually downplayed and treated as part of life’s great adventure. Of course, this was no adventure for the people of Amatrice, many of whom are living in makeshift dwellings in the snow covered high altitude and sparsely populated National Park.  Scandalous mismanagement and corruption has resulted in these families been left exposed to the harshest elements without adequate shelter and no substantive reassurance of provision of appropriate accommodation.

We continue to live our lives with a sense of security however mistaken and as we found from the chat in the coffee bar this morning so do our neighbours. However, the immediate sensation of a tremor is physically and psychologically disturbing, a reminder that vagaries of nature can neither be controlled or accurately predicted. 

Patrick Riordan: ‘We ended up snowed in with nowhere to run’

I currently living in Urbino, a small walled city with a population of about 10,000, in the province Le Marche. I am studying Italian and Italian literature in the Università degli studi di Urbino Carlo Bo.

Yesterday the town was hit by earthquakes, and combined with the snowstorms that have been relentless here over the past few days, we ended up snowed in with nowhere to run. Luckily, Urbino is not dangerously close to the epicentre. However, the town is at least 500 years old, and the housing is anything but modern.

I live in a small one bedroom house on the bottom floor of a four-storey building. At about 11.30am Italian time there were two earthquakes in less than 10 minutes. For one, I was in college and the bookshelves began shaking. That was the first time I had been out of the house at the moment of an earthquake, including those that struck last year.

There have been aftershocks. I was feeling slight shakes, barely strong enough to be noticed, throughout yesterday evening and last night. We are relatively certain we will remain safe, but when books begin to fall off the shelves and people screaming, it is difficult not to panic.

Patricia Crotty: ‘You have no idea how long they’re going to last’

I live in the Marches Region in Central Italy, one of the areas most affected by seismic activity over the past few months. Luckily, my town is at least 100km from the various epicentres around the Marches/Abruzzi/Umbria border area.

On August 24th last I got home late after a holiday in Ireland, crawled gratefully into bed, only to be woken by violent shaking in the middle of the night. Even though I knew exactly what it was, I lay there immobile, speechless for a few moments before I could manage a “Did you feel that?” to my husband. The higher up you are in a building, the more you feel it. We were on the third floor, but my daughters, on the second floor, slept blissfully through.

The thing about earthquakes is you have no idea how long they’re going to last, and how much worse they’re going to get. I was on the 22nd floor of a building downtown San Francisco for a very nasty 6.9 shake in 1989, when everything flew off shelves, and as I stood under a doorway looking out a window, I could see the nearby skyscrapers swaying. That kind of experience marks you, and seems to give a kind of hyper-sensitivity to this type of phenomena.

After that first 6.0 earthquake in August, which sadly resulted in over 300 deaths in mainly old houses in hilltop towns built well before increasingly strict building codes came into effect, things quietened down for a while.

My sister came for a visit from Ireland on October 29th. She was woken on the morning of the 30th by the bookcases banging against the wall. As this was her first experience of an earthquake, it took her a while to figure out what all the racket was about.

It was supposed to snow this week here in our area, and each morning my daughters grunted in disgust as they woke to no snow yet again. “I suppose that means we have to go to school.” At around 10.30am yesterday morning, the earth shook again, a short lull, and then two more shocks at 11.15 and 11.25. The girls got to leave school early.

We were quite blasé about this one, since the earthquakes were not quite as strong as previous ones. Most of the areas at highest risk have been evacuated, even though the populations of those areas are suffering terribly, having had to abandon homes and farms that were either destroyed or unsafe. A number of initiatives have been set up to help them, including buying local products such as hams and cheeses from Norcia, or lentils from Castelluccio.

I read this morning about the hotel hit by an avalanche triggered by the earthquakes yesterday. It was engulfed by snow and moved 10 metres down the hill. I have a Danish friend who lives nearby. I remembered a short video she had posted on Facebook just last week showing a very relaxing snow scene, where you could see bathers through the steam rising from a hot pool outside a hotel. It was that very hotel that was hit by the avalanche. She just told me now that she has four friends inside the hotel, and they’re still waiting for news.

Ray Flynn: ‘I felt like a bit of a fool standing under the arch’

Fortunately I am in Ireland at present but I was in Italy for the previous quakes that centred around Amatrice. Our house is in the Province of Arezzo near the hilltop town of Cortona, so it's not really in an earthquake zone; or so we thought.

When the last earthquake struck I was in bed reading. Suddenly the bed shook and shimmied a little. After the initial shock of this I went into the kitchen and stood under an old arch - I was always told this was the safest place to go to - from there I could see the various pots and pans swinging gentry as if a light breeze had disturbed them. I felt like a bit of a fool standing under the arch and after a respectable length of time retreated to my bed, keeping a watchful eye on the massive chestnut beams that hold the roof up.

The following day the quake - or “terramoto” as it is known here - was the talk of the hills. The local shopkeeper’s wife was in bed at the time and described how the wardrobe creaked and groaned. She's over 70, suffers from a bad back but was out of the bed quick as a flash.

Houses here are maybe 300 to 400 years old and unless the quakes are particularly vicious, people here say that the stones in the walls just move a little and then settle again.

The people who live in lower Appenines live with the threat of landslides, earthquakes, and very harsh winters, but generally get on with their lives without interference from the authorities for whom they have a healthy disregard for. They are generally self sufficient and a lot of the time live on subsistence farming and what the tourists bring to the area in summer.

It's a truly beautiful part of the world and the people who inhabit these hilly regions still have a sense of who they are and what they are about that has not changed in years. 

Jonathan Doyle: ‘It is unnerving for people unused to seismic instability’

When the earthquake hit I was seated with a colleague at the meeting table in my office in Frascati, about 130 km from the epicentre at Montereale. At first I felt a dull jolt, which evolved into strong shaking. It felt like being seated on a thick mattress placed upon a gravel sorter: multiple horizontal backwards and forwards shifts of varying intensity, prolonged for several seconds but which seem an eternity.

I focused on the hill visible from my window to try to gauge the movement of the building. The movement of the earth leaves you feeling puny and powerless.

It was nothing as grave as the Amatrice tremor in the depth of night last August, however, which shook with a much more violent strength. It is a very unnerving experience for people like me who are unused to seismic instability.

If you are based overseas would like to contribute to Irish Times coverage of breaking news events where you live, you can join the Irish Times Abroad Network here.

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