Two disgraces for Italy

Corruption, weak, self-serving leaders whose actions are justified not by results but by the paper trail they leave, money gone missing, these are the stories we hear of Italy today

Damage caused by L'Aquila earthquake of 2009
Tim Hedges
On 11 April 2013 11:00

As a hesitant spring takes hold of the peninsula, Italy finds itself still without a government more than six weeks after the elections. The nearest we have got is Berlusconi and Bersani discussing in principle what sort of person they would be prepared to accept as president, without anyone naming any names. A new president is required before there can be another election.

Italians are sensitive about what the world thinks of them, and are beginning to find this a bit of a disgrace. The general feeling has moved from a reluctant tolerance of the political class to outright denunciation.

Those Italians reading the newspapers last weekend were subjected to a further national disgrace: more evidence of the uselessness and venality of the leadership. It has been four years since the earthquake in the town of L’Aquila in the Abruzzo, western central Italy, and little has been achieved as to the rebuilding: the town still lies in ruins. Italy may have no government, but the aquilani have no homes.

On the night of April 6th, 2009, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the old Roman settlement, now a bustling town with a population of 73,000 and capital of the Abruzzo region. The quake killed nearly 300 people, injured 1,500, and left more than 60,000 homeless.

Four years on things have changed, but not by that much. Immediately after the earthquake central government took control of the issue and did well: large amounts of temporary housing were built in record time, tents were supplied, funds appropriated. Italians are compassionate and emergency civil protection is something they do well. Many families took in strangers. To highlight the problem, Berlusconi held the G-8 summit in the great military barracks and garnered some financial support from other leaders.

It is the reconstruction after the emergency which has been botched. The central government held on to the project for three years before handing it over to the regional authorities a year ago. Now 50 projects have been identified and begun but they are small matter compared to the mammoth task in front of them.

Celso Cioni, director of the Chamber of Commerce, says that the politicians bickered and fought, not realising that together they could have got the money out of the government: “To really start the reconstruction of the historic centre we needed a billion a year until 2019. So far we haven’t even received the 985 million earmarked by the Prime Minister’s office last December.”

The mayor, Massimo Cialente, told Radio 24 that if they didn’t receive the money, by 2016 there would be fewer than 40,000 inhabitants, mainly old people and public employees. L’Aquila would be dead.

Eyewitnesses to the earthquake reported huge slabs of stone crumbling like sand; it is likely that that is what they were. A mafia building technique is to use cheaper sea sand rather than quarry sand and skimp on the more expensive gravel and metal reinforcement. The salt in the sea sand soon corrodes what there is of the reinforcement and the building blocks will crumble like a mature pecorino cheese.

A large proportion of the buildings in L’Aquila suffered on the morning of April 6th but many modern buildings, such as the university and the ‘earthquake proof’ hospital came off very badly. The Roman edifices and 18th century churches were sturdier.

But it is not just the corrupt building techniques which have rendered the task of reconstruction so daunting. Engineer Gianfranco Ruggeri identifies other causes:

5 Special Laws;
21 Directives of the Comissariat;
25 Acts on the Emergency Management of Structures;
51 Technical Structure Acts;
62 Regulations of the Civil Protection service;
73 ordinances from the Prime Minister's office;
152 decrees of the Commissariat Delegate;
720 ordinances from the Comune.

There may be more that he has forgotten, he said; 1,109 laws which are preventing reconstruction of people's homes. These laws have been passed largely with the object of the protection of lawgivers, not of the rehousing of the homeless.

One thing they have managed is to try the scientists who were responsible for forecasting such issues (despite repeated statements from scientists worldwide that earthquakes cannot be forecasted). Seven members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were convicted in October last year of involuntary manslaughter. They were accused of being ‘falsely reassuring’ in relation to the pre-shocks which occurred, and sentenced to six years in prison.

None of which gets the place rebuilt. Today, it is thought that more than 20,000 people are still receiving assistance, four years on. Half of these are in Berlusconi’s temporary housing, whilst nearly seven thousand have no settled location and receive a paltry daily allowance.

Corruption, weak, self-serving leaders whose actions are justified not by results but by the paper trail they leave, money gone missing, these are the stories we hear. Too often we do not hear of the hard-pressed, badly-served construction workers, of acts of heroism by emergency forces and of the sheer, compassionate decency of poor families who take in strangers who are in need. That is as much Italy today as the rest of it.

Tim Hedges is a weekly columnist for the Commentator. He previously worked in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer and novelist

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