Meeting Italy’s shaken people

It is 2 months since an earthquake shattered parts of central Italy, killing 298 people and leaving several thousand homeless. Four weeks into the relief operation, I headed off on a mobile journalism trip to report on the aftermath. 

Focusing on the ruined villages of the Tronto Valley, near Ascoli Piceno in Marche region, my first report looked at the efforts of the Italian authorities to get people into proper shelter as the weather cooled (it’s forecast to be as cold as 4 degrees above zero at night this week in the upper valley). One family was living in their garden because of the cracks in the roof of their house in Piedilama – local photographer Paolo Ceccotti took these pictures of my visit. In Pescara, where the upper street is lined with wreckagesurvivor Enzo Rendina conveyed the horrific clamour of volcanoes for the camera.

Why, I then asked, did so many buildings collapse in these age-old villages? Italian structural engineering professor Graziano Leoni took me through some of the issues in Arquata. With so much sudden destruction visited upon their community, it remained to ask how people were preserving the memory of the place, and reporting its journey to recovery for posterity. Local schoolgirl Gaia Paolini described how she and others curated a Facebook page called Chiedi alla polvere (Ask The Dust). It’s still going strong.

The help of the Marche region’s media team – Margherita Rinaldi and Antonio Filippini – was invaluable. What struck me was how people wanted so passionately for the world to know what had happened and how their lives were still bound up in it.

It was a very short trip (five days) but I felt I could not leave the region without seeing how an area hit by an even more destructive earthquake in 2009 was faring seven years on, so I spent some time in L’Aquila. Amid the continuing grief at the destruction of the old city (309 people were killed) and its painfully slow reconstruction, I found one strong thread of hope in the amazing “smart tunnel” being built to supply L’Aquila with water, power and communications, in my fourth and final feature.

You can see here the Mojo kit I used to do my text and video reports.

For me this was a gripping story, a chance to see how a modern state deals with a natural catastrophe, but on the ground it all became hugely moving, witnessing the resilience of people still in shock and dismay, and the professionalism and dedication of the rescue services. You can glean a little of what I was feeling from this first draft of one of my features, later crunched down into something brisker:

Time spent in the no-go “red zones” is brief and busy for a reporter, escorted by firefighters who bark you back on to the road if you start down an alley or peer too closely into a ruined house.

It is for your own safety. You do not argue with them. These people know what an aftershock can do to those shattered walls that did not collapse with the rest.

You absorb what you can of the devastation and get back into the car for the short convoy back out  of the village, past the soldiers.

All you take away with you other than your impressions and recordings is the dust on your boots, which you really only notice back on the pristine floor of a hotel room. It is a fine white coating, no different from what you would gather on a holiday hike through the hills.

But when you recall the rubble it came from, remember the body count formula marked up in orange by the emergency services on the nearest bit of intact plaster, you can feel a little sick. Like you just hiked over people’s lives.

There is an old saying, “Ask the dust”, that usually means something unknowable but in Arquata del Tronto, where there is so much pain this autumn, some young people are giving the dust a voice.