Quake hastens fading of towns

Some worry that Italian disaster has buried forever a traditional way of life

April 08, 2009|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,Tribune Newspapers

ONNA, Italy - The calls from America kept coming, but Paolo Paolucci's answer stayed the same:

"Gabriella is dead."

A sigh, a gasp and, in the near distance, the sounds of hands and machines digging at the stone, mortar and splintered wood of broken homes and crumpled buildings scattered for miles in eerie heaps beneath mountains thick with snow.

Paolucci's elderly mother and his sister, Gabriella, were two of the dead as the toll from Monday's magnitude 6.3 earthquake rose to 235. Fifteen people remained missing. Sniffer dogs barked and scurried, coffins waited, and blue-and-white tents rose in fields and stadiums to house more than 17,000 left homeless in the Abruzzo region.

No place was hit as hard as Onna, which lost at least 40 residents and most of its tile-roofed buildings.

"Only a few houses are still standing. They'll have to knock everything down," said Ugo de Paudis, a town councilman, who stood in matted grass and mud as townspeople ate donated pasta off plastic plates.

"That's why we need to rebuild right here immediately, so there's a sense of future," he said. "Otherwise, people will move in with their families in other villages and cities, and our community will be lost."

Yet even before the ground shook, ripping streets and shattering the 16th-century statue of the Ascending Madonna, this town of 350 people was diminishing year by year: families moving away, the young seeking their fortunes beyond the beet fields and tiny factories.

It was a fate shared by hundreds of Italian hill towns and villages, but the quake might have hastened what some in Onna predicted - the demise of a way of life.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited the region and, according to the ANSA news agency, told the displaced: "We won't leave you alone. Don't worry; the reconstructions will be quick."

Officials estimated Monday that 50,000 people were homeless. By Tuesday evening, the number was 17,000 to 25,000 because many had moved in with friends or relatives.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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