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Italy mourns Amatrice, where quake wounds still weep
Rome (AFP) Aug 23, 2017

Italy's deadly flirtation with illegal building
Rome (AFP) Aug 23, 2017 - As Italy reels from another earthquake, experts warned Wednesday that widespread illegal construction is putting millions across the country at risk of being killed.

The tremor that shook the island of Ischia on Monday, toppling houses and killing two women, has sparked much soul-searching in a country with a weakness for rule-breaking -- particularly when it comes to building or renovating houses.

Geologists insisted that the relatively minor 4.0-magnitude quake should not have killed anyone and the civil protection agency laid the blame on the "many structures built with shoddy and illegal materials" on the island.

Residents there have put in 28,000 requests for amnesties for infringement of building regulations in the last 30 years.

Attempts by the council to tear down illegal constructions have sparked fury, with locals clashing with riot police.

The same battle is waged daily across Italy -- predominantly in the poorer south, the playground of Italy's mafias.

The mayor of Licata in Sicily was ousted this month by councillors infuriated by his campaign against illegal housing.

Italy's national statistic institute (ISTAT) warned last year of a "decisive rise in the level of illegality" in construction, involving nearly 20 new buildings in every 100. That number rose to 60 in every 100 in some regions in the south.

The scale "has no equal in other advanced economies," it said.

Worse, buildings allegedly restored under strict anti-seismic norms collapsed in quakes last year, including schools.

And while some buildings at risk due to poor-quality materials or unlicensed extensions are subject to demolition orders, only around 10 percent of them are carried out.

- Corruption, incompetence -

The worst offender is the Calabria region, followed by Sicily and the Basilicata in the instep of boot-shaped Italy.

But it is Campania -- encompassing Naples and Ischia island -- which is dubbed the "Russian Roulette of Italy" by experts because of its deadly mix of illegal houses, a high-density population and the active volcano Vesuvius.

There are over 4,500 schools, 259 hospitals and nearly 900,000 buildings in the highest-risk areas of the region.

"For at least the last 20 years the scientific community has been explaining the problem to the institutions, above all pushing for prevention measures," said Stefano Carlino, researcher at the national geographic institute in Naples.

"They are expensive of course, but also fundamental. Unfortunately the issue has not been given the attention it needs," he said.

Geologist Mario Tozzi warns Vesuvius is nothing compared to the activity seen at the nearby volcanic Phlegraean Fields over the last few years, including a rise in the ground-level of 25 centimetres (inches), tremors and ever-hotter gases.

"The Phlegraean Fields is a supervolcano made up of some 30 craters -- gaily occupied today by hippodromes and hospitals -- the eruption of which would spark the permanent exodus of half a million people," he said.

And how to forget Marsili, the undersea volcano south of Naples which is "70 kilometres (43.5 miles) long and 3,000 metres tall (10,000 feet), and just off the Calabrian coast", where an eruption could trigger a tsunami as well as devastate cities and towns.

As Italy marks the anniversary of a 2016 quake in central Italy that killed 299 people, Tozzi insisted it was not nature that buries children alive in rubble but "corruption, political incompetence and our incapability to learn from history".

And sometimes not even a tremor is needed to topple buildings: eight people died in July when an apartment block collapsed near Naples, killing among others the municipal architect in charge of building security checks in the area.

A year to the minute that a earthquake struck the Amatrice region, Italy on Thursday will remember the 299 victims killed in the night-time disaster that still haunts the country.

Survivors will hold a candle-lit procession in the early hours, even as Ischia island to the south, recovers from Italy's latest quake -- and critics again criticise the government for failing to shore-up the nation's poorly constructed buildings.

It was well before dawn on August 24, 2016 when a 6.0-magnitude quake razed much of Amatrice and the surrounding region, killing families in their beds or trapping them in dust-filled cavities in the rubble.

Children in their pyjamas were pulled lifeless from the debris, one youngster having used up the last of the oxygen tunnelling in the wrong direction in a futile bid to reach safety.

There was more to come. Shell-shocked locals suffered three more violent quakes, on October 26 and 30 and January 18 -- the last one sparking an avalanche that would wipe out a hotel and kill 29 people.

Damage to homes, schools, hospitals and churches in the region are estimated at 23.55 billion euros ($27.7 billion).

Hours before dawn on Thursday, relatives of the 239 victims who died in Amatrice on the 24th will meet at 1:30 am (2330 GMT Wednesday) to remember their loved ones with candles and prayers.

At 3:36am (0136 GMT), the moment the earthquake struck, a bell will toll 239 times, before a memorial mass is held.

- Survivors 'abandoned' -

Other commemorations are planned for Wednesday or Thursday in devastated hamlets nearby, from Accumoli to Pescara del Tronto, whose mayor recalled this week "we didn't know where to put all the dead".

The Italian Red Cross has called on Italy to observe 24 hours of social network silence with the hashtag #InSilenzio.

But in many parts, the mourning will be tinged with anger. The population is furious over delays in reconstruction, despite the government handing over 6.1 billion euros in emergency funds so far.

"Faced with an unprecedented sequence of seismic events, we have put in place exceptional measures and resources," Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni told a press conference on Monday.

"But that does not mean that everything is moving at the necessary speed. We are in a transitional phase: there are still emergencies to be dealt with and at the same time we are entering the reconstruction phase," he added.

Less than 10 percent of the 4,000 tonnes of rubble littering the 140 hamlets, towns and cities affected has been cleared, with anti-corruption controls slowing work on the ground.

Temporary houses have also been slow to arrive: of the 3,830 ordered for the region, only 456 have been delivered.

Many are not expected to be ready before winter in this mountainous area, where snowfalls are frequent and deep.

- Fears for future -

The reconstruction plan is ambitious: some 500 million euros -- 12 times the sum set aside for L'Aquila after its deadly 2009 earthquake -- is earmarked for use this year and next to help boost the local economy.

And to prevent some historic hamlets from falling into oblivion, the government has committed to helping rebuild all homes, including holiday houses.

"For the first time, the resources are there. There are so many people wondering if they should come back. Yes!" said reconstruction commissioner Vasco Errani.

Unlike L'Aquila, where survivors were relocated to new districts on the outskirts while the destroyed centre was virtually abandoned, the authorities aim to restore these culturally and historically rich localities to their former glory.

The plan for Amatrice goes even further. They envision a return to the 1930s by limiting the height of buildings, even giving the city the central square that the papacy banned it from having in the 15th century.

It will all be built according to precise anti-seismic standards -- except Italians are well aware that such rules are often flaunted, and construction short-cuts have left large areas extremely vulnerable to quakes.

A relatively small 4.0-magnitude quake on Monday was enough to topple several houses on the island of Ischia off Naples, killing two people. Geologists have insisted that a tremor of that level would not be lethal if homes had been built properly.

One dead, one missing after quake hits Italy holiday island
Rome (AFP) Aug 22, 2017
A 4.0 magnitude earthquake struck the Italian holiday island of Ischia late Monday, causing destruction that left one person dead and one missing at peak tourist season, authorities said. A woman was killed in Casamicciola, in the north of the small tourist island, hit by debris that fell from a church, with around 25 people injured in the quake, for the most part lightly. At a press con ... read more

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