Silvio Berlusconi switched the location of the G8 summit to the city of L'Aquila as a way of focusing world attention on Italy's most disastrous earthquake for 30 years.
But as Hu Jintao, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, touched down in Rome yesterday, the first of 40 world leaders to arrive for the summit, residents were sceptical that the presence of so many grandees on their doorstop would do them much good.
More than 300 people died, 1,500 were injured and 70,000 made homeless by the quake that struck exactly three months ago. In the days that followed the disaster, Mr Berlusconi, not yet embroiled in the sex scandal that is now dogging him, took personal charge of the rescue effort, visiting the city and meeting survivors each day.
It was widely recognised that the first phase of the emergency – getting the victims housed in tents or seaside hotels, and properly fed and looked after – was handled brilliantly.
Even Mr Berlusconi's celebrated remark to survivors that they should regard their spell on the coast as a camping holiday detracted little from the achievement.
But progress now appears to have ground to a halt, with attention more focused on cosmetic makeovers for the arrival of Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy and the rest, according to Massimo Manieri, a spokesman for the Association for the Reconstruction of L'Aquila.
"The first phase of the emergency was great," he said. "But then the authorities made a massive mistake: instead of building temporary housing to get the homeless out of tents as fast as possible, they decided to skip that phase altogether and move to permanent housing immediately. But none of that has been built yet. I will be surprised if even a fraction of what is required is built by December."
Mr Manieri said that 15,000 people were still living in tents and another 30,000 in hotels and in other accommodation, at huge public expense. Bureaucratic delays in getting building permits issued meant that work on reconstruction had barely begun.
"The city's situation is frozen," he said. "Until people get into homes, even temporary ones, economic activity cannot begin."
Meanwhile the feverish preparation for the summit had removed attention, money and people from the reconstruction effort, he claimed.
Yet the only work that had been done on the city in the run-up to the event had been superficial, he said.
The roads that the motorcades of President Obama and the other leaders will travel along to get to the Tax Police barracks where the summit is being held had all been renovated, "creating a great image of the city for the visitors. But it's all to do with creating an image." And there's more: "Last week they held a televised open-air concert in the central piazza of the old city for a carefully selected audience of 200, giving the impression that the centre was once again open to the public. But it's not true: none of the shops has re-opened. There is a huge information gap between what people see on television and the reality." Meanwhile, the earth tremors intensified again this week, with a recent tremor measuring 4.0 on the Richter scale driving many residents back into tents. Italy's earthquake monitoring service said the chances of the city being struck by an even bigger quake had risen from 13 per cent in June to about 30 per cent now.
This gives the summit's organisers a major headache: it has been decided that if L'Aquila is struck by a quake of four or stronger, the event will be relocated to Rome – not to Palazzo Madama or another of the baroque palaces where top-drawer foreign dignitaries are normally entertained, but to another police barracks, the Superior Police Institute.
The leaders would be whisked away by helicopter, but any delegations temporarily stranded in the city would be smartly moved into tents – giving them a brief taste of what the city's terremotati or "earthquaked" population have put up with all these months.
Agenda: G8 summit
The G8 countries are Canada , France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US. The world's five largest emerging economies will meet separately and nine African nations will join the forum later.
Big issues on the agenda are how to revive the global economy, cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 50 per cent by 2050, and tackle hunger in the world's poorest regions by the launch of a new "food security initiative".
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