Italy's earthquakes: Umbria shows the civilised way to cope with calamity

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The series of earthquakes in Italy recently has not only damaged priceless church art but also forced thousands from their homes. In one of the worst-hit towns, volunteers are eager to help, while the country's notorious bureaucracy has been slow to react

Annifo is the sort of small Umbrian hill town you might, in happier times, have wanted to stop at for coffee and a gentle stroll before driving on towards the more obvious pleasures of Urbino or Assisi.

Perched above the plateau of Colfiorito with a good view of the rolling Appenines, it has pretty undulating streets, attractive stone houses and a couple of little bars kitted out with the statutory public telephone and tobacco counter.

Or at least it did. Since the first of the seemingly endless series of earthquakes to have hit central Italy, on 26 September, Annifo has become a ghost town. At least half of its buildings have cracked or crumbled. The streets are strewn with rubble and broken roof tiles. The two roads leading in have been half-blocked off with metal barriers and flapping pieces of red and white tape. The only sound to break the eerie silence is the squeak of loose shutters creaking in the crisp autumn breeze.

A weather-beaten notice taped onto one of the metal barriers explains, in convoluted bureaucratese, that the place was officially evacuated on 1 October. In fact, the citizens of Annifo bolted as soon as disaster struck, not daring even to gather up their most basic possessions before leaving. The guts of their lives have literally spilled into the streets: a bright pink loo-brush in the rubble, or a half-empty box of detergent, "for a fragrant hand wash". Some of the detritus has been gathered up as an offering beneath a small wall shrine to Jesus, Mary and Joseph: a lamp, a clock, a pink telephone and a toy rifle.

The life of the town has reassembled at the bottom of the hill, on the municipal football pitch which has now been converted into a neatly laid- out tent city. About 250 people live in the navy blue government-issue tents, watched over by a group of Neapolitan finance policemen taking a break from their usual duties and provided with food, drink, basic clothing and hygiene by a clutch of volunteers.

This must be one of the best-dressed refugee camps in the world: these people may be homeless and traumatised, but they are also wearing Stefanel autumn colours and brand-new Timberlands. The showers may be a bit ropy (only three to go round, and water that refuses to get hot when it is needed), but the food would not disgrace the tourist dining-rooms of Spoleto or Gubbio: pasta perfectly al dente, with fresh tomato sauce and parmesan, followed by a salad of white beans and tuna fish, all washed down with a rather tasty Friulian white.

The most striking about these earthquakes is how out of place they seem. Umbria, with its green rolling hills, pretty white stone buildings, awesome artistic heritage and great food, is one of the most civilised places on earth. There is something awe-inspiring, even perverse, about such a natural calamity occurring here - underlining the grim fact that despite the eradication of war, poverty and plague in these parts, human progress has done precious little to protect itself against the unpredictable ravages of earthquakes.

What can one feel but incomprehension at the sight of a house belonging to an elderly peasant couple in Colfiorito, the epicentre of many of the tremors, with its front ripped off and the dining-room furniture knocked off kilter, exposed to the elements like an outsize doll's house capriciously jolted by some careless child? "We worked all our lives to build this house," said a glum Giuseppa Acerrini as she surveyed the wreckage. "There are strange forces at work here. Even the hills have moved: we can see villages in the next valley that were always hidden from view in the past."

By Italian standards, this is a medium-sized disaster. The tremors that shook the north-east in 1976 killed more than 1,000 people and razed entire towns. In the Naples hinterland four years later, the death toll was almost 3,000. In Umbria and the Marches, by contrast, no more than a dozen people have died, and the damage has been relatively isolated. Oh, but what damage. The media attention may have been focussed on the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, but across the entire landscape one comes across half-crumpled medieval towers, churches reduced to empty shells and picturesque holiday villages flattened into dust.

The pretty town of Nocera Umbra, on the road to Urbino, has been abandoned and its great bell-tower sheared off on one side. In Foligno, an unfashionable valley town, a pretty bell tower above the town hall, complete with Ghibelline crenellations, was progressively shaken off its brick pedestal until, this Tuesday, it eventually toppled over - just as a crane was moving into position to shore it up.

Recovery from these events is going to be slow and painful. First the tremors have to stop. Then everyone will have to hunker down for the bitter Umbrian winter; already container homes with decent heating systems are being brought in to the area. It will be several years before everyone is rehoused - and even then many hill-top communities may be abandoned altogether and rebuilt down in the valley.

Already, one sees two very different Italys at work in the recovery process. The first is an Italy of tremendous solidarity, spontaneous generosity and practical common sense - the Italy of the volunteer forces. The second is the creaking machinery of state bureaucracy, which is already showing sluggishness and political power-play as it gears up to help the region get back on its feet.

One ominous sign is a proposal by the state electricity company to install a 150,000-volt transmission station near Nocera Umbra. Natural beauty and human habitation do not seem to have made any impression on the planners, and neither does the manifest risk of future earthquake damage. "Unfortunately this is the way the state always behaves," sighed one art restorer in Assisi. "We've learnt nothing in all these years about how to look after our beautiful country."