Why Italian region wasn't prepared for earthquake

Story highlights

  • A 6.2-magnitude earthquake hit central Italy early Wednesday
  • Silvia Marchetti: Affected areas are beautiful, but transport links are poor

Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter and writer. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including MNI News, Newsweek and The Guardian. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN)When my bed in Rome rocked Wednesday at 3.36 a.m., I knew an earthquake had hit somewhere close, in central Italy. And hard. But when I switched on the TV and heard the epicenter was in the tiny hilltop town of Accumoli on the Apennine hills, my first question was: Where is that?

Other affected towns were mentioned: Arquata del Tronto, Amandola, Pescara del Tronto, Castelluccio di Norcia. This is the first time most Italians have ever heard of many of these places. And that gives a clue as to why rescue operations are so challenging in the wake of the powerful earthquake that struck the region early Wednesday morning.
    The devastated region is a maze of old hamlets, built close to one another. These hamlets and villages are beautiful -- picturesque and in some cases dating back to Roman and medieval times -- with cobbled alleys, frescoed Renaissance churches and gargoyles. Their great appeal is their remoteness and the fact that time seems to have been frozen in the Middle Ages. They're gorgeous spots for a summer break.
    Silvia Marchetti
    But their biggest appeal to visitors -- their remoteness from the rest of the country, the sense of isolation -- also creates the biggest challenge when a crisis hits. There are no major highways leading to the now nearly destroyed town of Amatrice; many nearby areas make do with narrow, dusty country roads where a single fallen tree can cut off access. The houses in the area are typically full of character, cozy, and also unstable, made of bricks that easily crumble to the ground.
    As a result, when disaster strikes, bulldozers often can't gain access, and survivors must be searched for with bare hands. The only way to access some isolated villages in a disaster is by helicopter or by going on foot uphill, as volunteers are doing, carrying shovels on their shoulders.
    Italy has an estimated 20,000 semi-abandoned villages that are rapidly depopulating and turning into virtual ghost towns. In many cases, locals fled after World War II in search of better living conditions, sometimes to try to avoid the type of natural calamity that has rocked the region since its geological birth.
    Even when villagers returned, having made their fortunes elsewhere, they would generally give their homes merely a cosmetic makeover -- they were often simply second, summer homes -- with little to no earthquake-proofing of infrastructure.
    Sometimes, these "locals" are actually no longer residents -- coming only at weekends or on vacation. This creates an additional challenge when tracking people down after a disaster such as Wednesday's. Officials in these villages have a hard time establishing exactly how many people are even meant to be in the town. Accumoli, for example, has around 600 permanent residents, spread across 17 subdivisions. But during the summer, vacationers bump that number up to 5,000 or more.
    A further challenge is that these off-the-beaten-track destinations also come, almost by definition, with poor mobile and Internet coverage, which is only worsened by a quake that brings down antennas, making it hard for survivors to contact rescue teams.
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    So none of this should come as a surprise, especially as the quake-stricken area is not just dotted with these ghost towns, but also rises on the Apennine "red belt," which has the country's highest seismic risk level. Italy, meanwhile, is the most quake-exposed country in the Mediterranean due to being atop the convergence of the African and Eurasian plates; nearly 7 million Italians live in areas at risk of natural calamities including mudslides and floods.
    So, if the challenges are no secret, why all the chaos? The truth is that despite the great work being done by rescuers and volunteers, Italy lacks an adequate prevention plan. Of course, earthquakes themselves cannot be accurately predicted, but efficient reconstruction plans could help prevent natural disasters developing into catastrophe.
    After the L'Aquila earthquake in 2009, the government allocated €965 million over seven years for seismic prevention. But this is a fraction of what experts believe is required to upgrade national buildings and roads to help them withstand seismic activity. In addition, regular rescue drills should be held, in rural areas as well as densely populated regions, to help ensure an effective response once disaster hits.
    Ultimately, though, Italy's many small towns and villages will have to make their own preparations, too. Of course, the ideal of a summer retreat cut off from the outside world is appealing for a summer vacation. But a failure to adapt and upgrade infrastructure will keep coming back to haunt even the most idyllic locations when the ground trembles.