It was the kind of convoy you would expect to see in a war zone – a long line of army trucks packed with soldiers, khaki-colored Land Rovers, and huge mechanical diggers on the back of flat-bed transporters.
But this was not Iraq or Syria. It was Italy, the day after a magnitude 6.0 earthquake devastated towns and villages in a mountainous region in the centre of the country.
Italy has a reputation for dysfunction and inefficiency in many spheres of life, from almost endemic tax evasion to revolving door governments and a bloated and politicized justice system. But, when it comes to natural disasters such as this, the country swings into action.
Within hours of the quake striking early Wednesday morning, hundreds of police, soldiers, and ambulance crews were on their way to help. Volunteers turned out in force as well, including caving experts from the Alpine Rescue service. They are undertaking the dirty, dangerous job of tunneling into huge mounds of rubble, timber beams, and smashed brick, searching for survivors.
The rescue effort is being coordinated by Italy’s Civil Protection agency, which performed the same role during its last big quake in 2009, when the mountain town of L’Aquila was devastated and 300 people lost their lives.
In a country in which politicians, public officials, and state entities are often viewed with disdain, the Civil Protection agency is held in high regard.
“It’s the only thing that works in Italy,” says Luciano, who owns a shop in Amatrice, one of the towns worst hit by the quake. “The problem in this country is what comes afterwards – we have very little confidence in our politicians to do the right thing in terms of rebuilding and repairing the damage. They’re hopeless,” he says.
Many survivors are recalling with dismay the fate of nearby L’Aquila. Badly hit by the quake seven years ago, it remains a vast construction site, with churches and homes propped up with steel girders, covered in scaffolding.
The prime minister at the time, Silvio Berlusconi, promised it would be restored to its former glory, but the pace of work has been painfully slow, amid red tape, a lack of government funds after years of economic stagnation, and claims of mafia infiltration of public works contracts.
The people caught up in this week’s earthquake, which has been followed by more than 250 aftershocks, are haunted by what happened to L’Aquila, which lies just over the mountains.
“After seven years, L’Aquila remains an open wound,” says Stefano Petrucci, the mayor of Accumoli, another town that was all but destroyed by this week's quake. “What’s going to happen to us?”
A desire to help
The winding road that leads to Amatrice was blocked by police, forcing anyone other than the Army or official emergency teams to walk the final three miles to the hill-top town.
A group of young men were sweating as they carried heavy boxes and sacks full of bottled water, blankets, and second-hand clothes into town. One carried a pick and shovel over his shoulders, bought that day from a local hardware store.
They were from a neighboring town and had come to do what they could for the dazed survivors wandering amid the crushed cars and smashed masonry. Hundreds of other Italians have converged on the area, offering to lend a hand.
“I came here on my own initiative,” says Matteo Michetti, a carpenter. “I thought I could be useful.” He helped rescue a mother and her son, who were trapped beneath the rubble in the flattened village of Pescara del Tronto.
The response to the quake has brought out the best in Italy, said a front page editorial in the newspaper La Stampaon Thursday:
Italy’s strength has been shown in the passion of the volunteers, in the professionalism of rescuers, removing pieces of rubble one at a time in the hope of finding someone alive, and in the solidarity between inhabitants [of the affected region].
Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spoke for many Italians when he praised the work of the rescue services as they continue to dig with their bare hands amid the wreckage of homes and shops in towns and villages such as Amatrice, Accumoli, and Pescara del Tronto.
“In the face of such suffering, Italy shows its best characteristics," he said. "We should be proud of that."