Aftershocks at G-8 Summit Site in Italy Raise Concerns

The Group of Eight summit is taking place in L'Aquila, a town still shaken by aftershocks from April's brutal earthquake - Italy's worst in 30 years - and full of criticism that the meeting will disrupt rebuilding efforts.
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

L'AQUILA, Italy, July 7 -- After an earthquake shattered this mountain city in April, killing 296 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless, the Italian government decided to move the Group of Eight summit here to draw global attention to the rebuilding effort.

Since then, however, this geologically unstable region has been plagued by a series of aftershocks, fraying nerves in an already jittery population and raising doubts about whether L'Aquila is the best place for leaders of the world's top industrial nations to meet under one roof.

On Friday, a 4.1-magnitude temblor rattled buildings and triggered car alarms. Although no one was hurt and no damage reported, civil defense officials said the epicenter was about a half-mile from the police barracks in L'Aquila where the main summit meetings will be held.

The tremor prompted Italian authorities to acknowledge, for the first time, that they have prepared an evacuation plan to airlift world leaders from L'Aquila if necessary during the three-day summit, which begins Wednesday. Italian officials previously downplayed the risks, noting that the concrete-reinforced police barracks had survived the April 6 quake intact and that there was nothing to worry about.

"To cause problems, there would need to be an earthquake that has never before been recorded in L'Aquila's history," Guido Bertolaso, chief of Italy's civil protection agency, told reporters.

The 5.8-magnitude quake crumpled thousands of buildings in the region.

An estimated 55,000 people remain homeless, living in tent cities in L'Aquila and the surrounding area, or in hotels 70 miles away, along the Adriatic Sea.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has pledged to find permanent housing for all quake victims before the arrival of winter, when temperatures in the mountains dip into the single digits. Construction workers are rushing to fix damaged buildings and install prefabricated houses, but L'Aquila's displaced are getting increasingly anxious.

"They have to take care of us before the winter comes," said Domenico Piccinini, 46, a bar owner who is living with 1,070 other people in a tent camp about a mile from where the summit will be held. "To spend December in a tent in L'Aquila is just not possible."

Piccinini said having the summit nearby has slowed the pace of recovery. Reconstruction was complicated enough, he said, without factoring in the preparations for a major international conference.

"Put it this way: Before the earthquake, had anybody suggested having the G-8 here, they would have been considered crazy," said Piccinini, whose quake-damaged home was condemned by authorities. "They can't even organize a big concert here."

Italy originally planned to host the summit at La Maddalena, a small island and luxury resort off the northern coast of Sardinia. But officials said it might send the wrong message for world leaders to gather at such a swanky spot while more than 50,000 Italians remained homeless in this region.

Italian authorities are betting that a side benefit of holding the summit in the mountains is that the remote location will make it more difficult for anti-globalization demonstrators to disrupt the G-8 summit. Road access to L'Aquila has been sharply curtailed this week, with police manning checkpoints and highway overpasses all the way to Rome, 60 miles away.

Berlusconi has visited L'Aquila more than 15 times since the earthquake to reassure residents. Several residents and aid workers in L'Aquila said they disagreed politically with the prime minister, but admired him for cutting the red tape and prodding the bureaucracy to hasten the region's recovery.

"He's a strange guy, but he's a genius at getting things done," said Annalisa Signorile, a civil protection worker at the Piazza D'Armi tent camp in central L'Aquila.

All told, Italy is trying to raise $42 million in international donations to restore monuments, churches and other historic structures in the region.

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