Seven years on, shadow of earthquake still hangs over L’Aquila

Suburbs have been reconstructed but the heart of L’Aquila remains to be rebuilt

It is a cold, dark night in the central Piazza del Duomo in L’Aquila. Against a ghostly background of dug-up pavements, scaffolding and cranes, the traditional Good Friday procession is slowly filing past.

The crucified Christ, the madonna and a series of confraternities make their way past accompanied by the singing of the Miserere, this one written in 1730 by local composer Saverio Selecchy.

Among all the objects carried in procession, there is one that stands out because of its gold laminated, newish look. As it comes past, it becomes clear that it is a huge notice board containing the names of the 309 people who died in the L’Aquila earthquake of April 5th-6th, 2009.

To say that the earthquake still casts its dark shadow over L'Aquila is to state the obvious. The heart of the town, the centro storico (historic centre), today is still a ghost town, largely unrebuilt with the exception of a handful of buildings, most of them either public administration or churches.


In the pre-earthquake days, a crowd of 30,000 would turn out for the Good Friday procession. This evening, there are fewer than 1,000 in the Piazza del Duomo. There is nobody living in the centre of a city which was once one of the mediaeval, renaissance and baroque jewels of central Italy.

So why is the centre still a ghost town? The answer goes back to the decisions taken by the Silvio Berlusconi government that was in power back in 2009.

Current deputy mayor of the city Nicola Trifuoggi, a former Mafia investigating judge brought out of retirement to sit in the town hall in 2014 in the wake of a corruption scandal linked to the post-earthquake reconstruction, shakes his head resignedly and says: "Where there is a lot of money, you whet up a lot of appetites."

The earthquake was a catastrophe for L’Aquila and its people but it was also an opportunity for all those linked to the building sector. Remember the widely reported phone tap on the night of the earthquake in which two businessmen, Francesco Maria De Vito Piscicelli and Pierfrancesco Gagliardi, were reportedly laughing at the prospect of so many contracts?

Approximately €250 million has since been spent on scaffolding alone in the town-cum-building site. For every clamp or joint used to put together the ubiquitous scaffolding, a firm could claim €30.

You have never seen so many clamps, nor so much scaffolding, as there is in L’Aquila today.

Trifuoggi, the deputy mayor, points out that so far L’Aquila has spent €9 billion on reconstruction and he says it will take at least another six years and another €6 billion to complete the city centre.

That sort of money inevitably attracts organised crime, which has wormed its way into the reconstruction via private rebuilding contracts and “phantom” companies formed to build the infamous “new towns” outside L’Aquila.

In 2009, the Berlusconi government came up with a reconstruction scheme that laid the emphasis on creating so-called “new towns” in and around L’Aquila for many of the 80,000 left homeless by the earthquake.

The advantage here was that these new conurbations would be ready within months while the reconstruction of the badly destroyed centre would clearly take years. Thus is it was that by September of 2009, a smiling Berlusconi was handing over the keys of the first new houses in Onna, a little village in the foothills of L’Aquila that had been almost entirely wiped out by the earthquake.

The disadvantages of this approach, however, were obvious. The failure to immediately set about the reconstruction of the town centre created an uninhabited ghost town. Indeed, for more than a year, the centro storico remained under military control, with access was denied to citizens.

The problem was compounded by the fact that, like a lot of Italian towns, L'Aquila boasted a centro storico still very much inhabited (by approximately 20,000 people) and not given over exclusively to shops and offices.

On top of all that, the 7,500 new town dwellings did not all turn out to be a success. Trifuoggi estimates that 30 per cent of these new houses were so badly built that they will now need to be destroyed.

Unseasoned wood, ill-fitting walls and inappropriate materials mean that some of these houses have begun to literally fall apart, suffering from heat loss, water infiltration and in some cases balcony collapses.

It’s not as if the new towns were cheap. Trifuoggi reckons they came at a basic price of €2,700 a square metre, up to three times higher than pre-earthquake market rates.

About 70 per cent of the new houses are fine. Some residents say that they are better than plenty of other housing around L’Aquila, but that is hardly the point.

Expensively built, the new towns were often constructed by consortiums that came together for the project and evaporated immediately afterwards, making it almost impossible to gain any compensation or to pursue the builders for those unlucky enough to get a dud, leaky, cold and badly-built house.

Trifuoggi says that not all the news is bad. He points to a current project that involves the laying of a huge pipe containing gas, electricity and fibre optic cables all around the centro storico. This will help with the L'Aquila project of having itself classified as a technologically advanced "smart city".

But shouldn’t a project such as this, and in particular the restoration of underground utility pipes, have been a priority from the outset?

Six years ago, young architect Claudio Perrotti was one of those who argued that the direction of the L'Aquila reconstruction was a mistake. Today he remains worried about the town centre.

With 95 per cent of the town's suburbs repaired, he points to that the estimated 40,000 (the figure is probably smaller) Aquilani – people from the city – who have chosen to stay in the area now live either in the suburbs or in the new towns outside.

Having survived the earthquake and having set up a new home, many of them have no interest in moving back to the centre, even if it was an option.

Perrotti and his father Antonio argue that L’Aquila has been handicapped by the lack of comprehensive “disaster” legislation. Rather it has been an administrated on an “emergency” basis.

On top of that, the city had the particular bad luck to suffer its first earthquake for 300 years right in the middle of a global economic recession.

Celso Cioni, the regional director of the business association Confcommercio, points out that only 45 out of 1,000 shops and bars have re-opened in the city centre.

One of those is the bar just off Piazza Duomo run by the Sorelle Nurzia company, famous throughout central Italy for its sweetmeats, in particular its torrone, a chocolate- or nougat-based honey and nut cake popular at Christmas time.

In L’Aquila, people say that “everything here is hard, except for the Nurcia turrone”, which has been on sale since 1835.

As of now, the Nurzia bar limps along, working off small gas tanks.In the bar we meet Mario. He is the owner of another successful central bar, the Gran Sasso, once much frequented by L’Aquila’s rugby-playing community and named after the impressive snow-capped mountain that dominates the town.

He says that he, too, worked hard to reopen his bar but that he has now closed it down again because, in an uninhabited centre, he no longer has a regular clientele.

In a world worried by issues such as terrorism and climate change, L'Aquila has probably been a little forgotten. In the summer of 2009, just three months after the earthquake, then prime minister Berlusconi pulled off a coup by deciding to hold that year's G8 summit in L'Aquila (in a military compound) as a way of focusing attention on the town's plight.

World leaders muddled through the rubble for memorable photo-ops and (not always honoured) promises of aid were made. (To be fair, Germany contributed to the rebuilding of Onna.) Despite the words and the funds, from Italy and the the European Union, however,

L’Aquila has a long way to go before it can claim to be fully up and running.