G-8 Spouses Get a Look at Earthquake Devastation in Italy, but It's a Sterile View

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 Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

L'AQUILA, Italy, July 9 -- Rarely has a first lady's symbolic visit to a heart-rending scene been choreographed to have such little emotional impact.

The G-8 spouses, along with governmental VIPs and their handlers, paid an afternoon visit to the site of the April earthquake that devastated this once charming city. Michelle Obama was among those who toured the main square, which now looks like a demolition site.

In anticipation of the spouses' arrival, firefighters stood at attention in front of the church of Santa Maria del Suffragio, the cupola of which had caved in from the intense tremors that killed nearly 300 people and left 65,000 homeless. The spouses appeared through a cloud of security that surrounded them so thickly it threatened to block out the day's brilliant sun. The women moved slowly and en masse across uneven stone streets. They were dwarfed by ugly construction cranes that rose amid elegant old buildings so badly damaged one could have mistaken this town for an ancient ruin long since lost to time.

The women paused in front of the church; Obama greeted the assembled firefighters and relief workers. And then the group quickly moved through the piazza and strolled down a side street, which was flanked by badly damaged shops and homes, and into another square. There they paused in front of a crumbling government building -- the words "Palazzo del Governo" still legible on its broken and faded pink facade.

Other nearby buildings, some that looked on the verge of tumbling down, remained precisely as they were found immediately after the earthquake -- their future now uncertain. Inside a dust-covered restaurant, bottles were piled behind window panes that remained weirdly unbroken. Metal banisters dangled from sagging rooftops.

All the residents of the city center have been evacuated, with many forced to live in tent cities. The entire area has an eerie hush to it now. The only sound, aside from the low rumble of the gathered media, was the high-pitched trill of chirping birds from the old-growth trees.

The spouses lingered for barely 10 minutes at their second stop and offered no public comments. In a scene that was all about silent symbolism and quiet grief, several of the VIP visitors could be seen chuckling, although not the American first lady, who was at the center of the slow-moving pack.

The women formed a strange sight in this ground zero of human suffering. They were dressed for a luncheon that immediately followed their walk through the rubble. (Obama, with her hair pulled into a loose bun, was wearing a lime-green top with a marigold pleated skirt and a short-sleeve floral cardigan in yellow and white.) And while many of the spouses were wearing flats -- including Obama -- their lunchtime elegance amid the wreckage, along with the speed with which their handlers whisked them from the site, gave the whole scene the look of disaster tourism.

The G-8 summit had been moved from its planned location, Sardinia, to L'Aquila in an effort to draw attention to the devastation in the region and to infuse the area with money. And on Wednesday, President Obama and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited this same earthquake-damaged neighborhood. During their walk, the president offered a few words of sympathy for the victims and assured them that the United States would lend its support. The visit was largely ceremonial, but it implied something substantial: These two heads of state, with the authority and influence at their command, have seen what has happened. They are aware. And they will act.

The G-8 spouses' visit to the area was symbolic as well. It was a way to pull at the heartstrings of the international community. But the event was organized in the manner of a summer camp outing, and all that was missing was a tour guide at the front of the group holding an umbrella aloft.

As the afternoon unfolded, the priority was clearly capturing the women against a dramatic backdrop for the television cameras, not helping them make a human connection to the tragic events. As the women moved through the square, Agostino Miozzo, the national director of Italy's Civil Protection Agency, which is akin to FEMA, spoke to Michelle Obama. But there were no average folks present -- no former residents of the crumbling city center, no one from the tent cities, no one who could say that the devastated church had been their place of worship or the soul of their family's history. There was no sense of what the city had meant to its displaced residents.

As the VIPs looked at the collapsed government building, it would have been hard not to be struck by the violence with which the earth shook and the vastness of the damage. Perhaps the spouses were able to imagine the lives that have been forever altered by this disaster. If so, it would have required the full power of their imagination. Because the only thing the women were shown at this group outing was a large pile of rubbish. There was no one who conveyed, in human terms, why the rubbish matters.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company