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Powerful earthquakes rattle central Italy

Strong earthquakes caused injuries and widespread damage, but no fatalities, in central Italy overnight Wednesday.

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    Firefighters inspect a collapsed building after an earthquake in Borgo Sant'Antonio near Visso, central Italy, Thursday
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As officials surveyed the site of earthquakes that hit mountainous central Italy overnight, the general feeling was one of relief.

Two strong earthquakes affected the region, which includes Umbria and Marche, on Wednesday night. The first was a 5.4 magnitude tremor, while the second registered at 6.1, making it eight times stronger. They were followed by a 4.9 magnitude aftershock, and dozens of weaker shocks that went on throughout the night.

Many residents left their homes after the first quake, some fleeing into the pouring rain. Those who could not find shelter elsewhere spent the night in their cars. Their responses, as well as successful restoration efforts following previous earthquakes, have been praised for the limited injuries resulting from the earthquakes.

The quakes come just two months after the August 24 earthquake killed almost 300 people and destroyed several towns in the region. Understandably, residents were somewhat emotionally shaken by the events, with Campi resident Mauro Violo telling Reuters that he “can’t shake off the fear.”

The two quakes do seem to be connected. Massimiliano Cocco from Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology explained that the August event probably caused these tremors, which have also been described as aftershocks from the previous quake. Because they were so close to the surface, their effect was magnified, according to US Geological Survey seismologist Paul Earle.

But officials emphasize that the fallout from this one is under control. Dozens of people sustained minor injuries and four were seriously hurt, Italy’s Civil Protection Agency said. Yet there are no signs of people trapped in rubble, and no-one seems to have been killed. 

Speaking on state radio, Interior Minister Angelino Alfaro explained that the weaker first quake probably helped save lives, because most people had already left their homes before the stronger second quake hit. It was after the second quake that buildings began to collapse, according to Campi fire department official Rosario Meduri.

Gianluca Pasqui, mayor of Camerino, where the town’s historic bell tower collapsed, pointed to the absence of fatalities as a sign that buildings reconstructed after previous shocks held up well.

“I can say that the city didn’t have victims. That means that even if there is a lot of damage probably the reconstruction in the historic center was done in a correct and adequate manner. Because otherwise, we would be speaking of something else,” Mayor Pasqui told Sky TG24.

With many homes rendered uninhabitable, mayors have expressed concern about housing the predominantly older population of the mountain towns. With the weather getting chillier, tents – used in August – are no longer an option.

Rescue workers prepared a 50-bed quake-proof room in Campi for those who could not stay in their homes, and the mayors are searching for more temporary housing. One option being considered is camper vans, which are less vulnerable to tremors than hotel buildings.

And the government has indicated that financial support may be forthcoming. Interior Minister Alfaro said that a decree that would pay for costs relating to the August quake could be extended to cover Wednesday’s events also. The decree is currently under consideration by Italy’s parliament.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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