LIKE THE TREMORS that still jolt southern Italy more than a week after its worst earthquake in 65 years, the human tragedies of its survivors rage on relentlessly in the ruins -- an aftershock of hunger, disease, bitter weather, death and confusion. The homeless are legion still, and the death toll unknown, perhaps to surpass 10,000. The devastation covers nearly 9 percent of Italy's territory, embracing 97 towns and villages, many of them in foggy, isolated mountain areas that are accessible only by narrow, winding and crumbling roads. Making matters worse, in the wake of this natural disaster has come a storm of political controversy concerning the efficiency and effectiveness of the government's response.
So far, at least, the calamities of the Italians' own official relief efforts have not diminished the traditional generous response of Americans -- as individuals and as a country -- to human tragedy. In the U.S. government, in neighborhoods, in churches and among civic groups as well Americans overseas, the initial humanitarian efforts have been vigorous. With the support of President Carter, Congress moved quickly yesterday to provide up to $50 million for relief and reconstruction.
On the scene, U.S. forces in the European/Mediterranean areas have been airlifting thousands of tents and blankets to the area and providing helicopter reconnaissance and relief missions. Also, many U.S. Navy men and women gave up most of their Thanksgiving holiday to unload cargo from C130s and C141s for transfer to helicopters that could drop supplies to survivors.
In all likelihood, the criticisms of the Italian governments's response will continue, and some of it may be disturbing. As President Sandro Pertini has noted already, a number of laws were enacted 10 years ago to deal with natural calamities -- but were never put into effect; at the time, government aid was disappearing into the pockets of speculators and politicians. Organizational skills have been lacking, too.
Still, these official shortcomings do not diminish the very real desperation of the earthquake's victims, but, in fact, only make them sharper. Every effort to monitor the relief aid from source to beneficiary should be made, to be sure; but the calls for help are genuine, and Americans are responding with compassion.