In Italy, earthquake survivors struggle to make a tent city feel like home

Gardens and kids' bikes are small signs of an effort to create some normalcy in one of more than 170 encampments that house residents of L'Aquila, badly damaged by an April 6 quake.

Alex Marks/The Christian Science Monitor
Gigliola Mastropietro (r.) sits outside with her mother Irma Cerrone and daughter Jessica. Ms. Mastropietro and her family have been here since the morning of the quake. She says the international attention gives her a sense of solidarity and hope.
Alex Marks/The Christian Science Monitor
Mihaela Dita runs outside her family's temporary home in L'Aquila, Italy.
Alex Marks/The Christian Science Monitor
The medieval castle at the center of L'Aquila sustained damage to both its roof and interior in the earthquake.
Alex Marks/The Christian Science Monitor
Rubble and damaged buildings are seen in the streets of L'Aquila, Italy. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided to move the annual G-8 Summit from a luxurious island off the coast of Sardinia to the devastated city, shortly after visiting there last month.

Wildflowers sit on a table and laundry hangs outside the Cordones' new home – a blue tent in an encampment on the outskirts of L'Aquila, a medieval walled city nestled in the mountains 60 miles east of Rome.

The family of three has lived here with more than 1,200 other people since the morning of April 6, when an earthquake cracked the ground and crumbled their home and much of their city.

The Cordones' old street is now strewn with rubble. It's near the center of L'Aquila, where more than 60,000 people once lived. The once-bustling narrow lanes are empty except for police, firemen, engineers, and the occasional pack of dogs.

These are the two worlds international leaders will confront when they gather here for the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in July.

One is the temporary tent city thriving with schools, a hospital, and canvas homes complete with potted plants, gardens, and kids' bicycles leaning outside.

Less than a mile away are remains of the centuries-old city, where 1 in 4 of the stone, stucco, and concrete buildings has collapsed or is now nothing but exterior shells.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided to move the annual meeting from a luxurious island off the coast of Sardinia to the devastated city, shortly after visiting there last month.

Dignitaries like President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, along with their retinues, will be staying at a military barracks on the outskirts of town that was not damaged.

Mr. Berlusconi has said the spartan nature of the accommodations is more in keeping with the difficult economic times. He's also hoping the attention on the devastated ancient city will help raise money to cover the estimated $10 billion in damages.

Despite a history of earthquake activity going back to the 14th century, fewer than 5 percent of the buildings were insured for earthquake damage.

Life in a tent city

The decision to move the international summit was applauded by many here in this makeshift camp. It is one of more than 170 such camps, set up by Italy's Civil Protection agency, that surround the outskirts of the old walled city.

Gigliola Mastropietro and her family have been here since the morning of the quake. She says the international attention gives her a sense of solidarity and hope.

Sitting outside one of the long rows of tents with her disabled mother, Irma Cerrone, and toddler daughter, Jessica, Ms. Mastropietro says they are living in a kind of limbo "in the hands of Civil Protection."

The laboratory where her husband worked with marble and other types of stone was so damaged that it is closed indefinitely.

The top floor of their home, which is about a mile outside of L'Aquila in the hills, crumbled into the floors below. The police and fire brigades have allowed her to see it once, but now it is strictly off limits.

"At the moment, you can't go near the house. We have to wait for other checks to see if it can be rebuilt," she says.

The dislocation has taken a toll on the family. Jessica, the toddler, was walking and talking before the quake hit. Now, she does neither.

Irma, the grandmother, suffers from the heat. The blue tents magnify the sun, so she spends much of the day sitting outside in her wheelchair in what little shade she can find.

The temperatures, which can vary from very hot during the day to cold at night, are problems the camp officials are well aware of.

"We hope to put a kind of cooling unit in each tent," says Cpt. Marco Venturoligin, head of the camp operations. "We are also going to put a large tarp over some of the public areas."

The short-term goal is to have temporary, prefabricated homes ready by the end of September to replace the tent encampment before the bitter cold of winter comes.

Meanwhile, Captain Venturoligin calls this camp "a kind of a window on the situation here."

Not easy for volunteers, either

People are doing their best to live as normal a life as possible. More than 300 volunteers from around Italy try to make that possible, working in the makeshift schools, medical center, and churches that have set up shop within the camp.

Luca Curti came from a town in the north near Bologna. He works for Civil Protection and is seasoned in dealing with earthquake survivors.

"It takes patience; they've been traumatized and are very emotional," he says. In his pocket, he carries a little stuffed toy that was given to him by one of the children he helped rescue from a school during the 2002 earthquake in San Giuliano. The injured child later died.

"When I think about it, I get tears in my eyes," he says.

But it also helps remind him of the importance of making sure the people here, especially the children, get everything they need – including some fun.

On a recent afternoon, Civil Protection gave out kites to the children, many of whom ran through the camp holding them as high as they could.

Many of the displaced adults are also using humor to bring a sense of normality to their lives.

Walter Pagliaro lived his whole life one mile from the center of town. His house was totally destroyed. He believes it will take at least 20 years for the town to be rebuilt, and then, he says with a smile, "We will be old!" In the meantime, he's set potted plants outside of his tent and planted a small garden.

"For me, my life as I knew it is dead, so I'm growing tomatoes to give life," he says.

Saving the old city of L’Aquila

The center of L’Aquila’s old walled city, a warren of narrow winding streets punctuated with wide sunny squares, remains closed and cordoned off by the military.

Its main inhabitants are now the engineers and firemen who work 15-hour days. While they are still clearing some of the rubble-strewn streets, their main job is to reinforce the damaged structures of dozens of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance palaces and churches. The goal is to ensure they can withstand the small aftershocks and tremors, which have continued, albeit with lessening strength, since the main quake on April 6.

Many of the exterior walls of the old palaces are being shored up with lumber. But in some cases, as in the collapsed nave of the famous Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, firemen are using complex steel structures to protect what remains.

Engineers have estimated that 50 to 60 percent of the buildings here can be salvaged with minor work. Another 20 percent can be saved with major structural work. But the rest will simply have to be torn down.

Residents and business owners can go in to check their buildings, but only when escorted and with special permission.

Giovana D’Angelo now lives in Rome, but she has just come from seeing her family’s ancestral home in the center.

She’s worried that it’s one of those that can’t be salvaged.

"It was destroyed, completely," she says. "At this point, I only have tears."

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