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Aftermath of the earthquake

Aftermath of the L'Aquila earthquake.

Video feature: Inside L'Aquila's 'Red Zone'

17 September 2010

On 6 April 2009, the historical city of L'Aquila in central Italy suffered a 6.3-magnitude earthquake. The town's 'red zone' is a forbidden area, still too dangerous for people to return to their homes. The Fault Line living team – winners of the Royal Geographical Society's 'Go Beyond' bursary – got special permission to film there.

During our 15,000-mile road trip along some of the world's most active fault lines, we've been capturing the ordinary and extraordinary stories of people who live on fault lines, and recording seismic activity with the help of British Geological Survey equipment.

In mid-September we arrived in L'Aquila and got special permission to see the devastated red zone first-hand. It was a moving experience.

We arrived to see washing blowing in the wind, long-since dried. A child's toy lay abandoned in a pile of rubble, an entire bathroom hung at an impossible angle from a decimated apartment block. On every street corner we saw the haunting signs of a city abandoned in minutes, as people fled their houses in the early hours of the morning.

Aftermath of the earthquake

An abandoned toy in L'Aquila.

The 6.3-magnitude earthquake that hit L'Aquila in April 2009 killed 308 people and more than 65,000 were forced to decamp to temporary tented cities, coastal resorts and even empty trains, in what was to become one of Italy's most catastrophic natural disasters in recent times.

With the help of geologist Dr Gerald Roberts from Birkbeck, University of London, and Eutizio Vittori of the Geological Survey of Italy, we were able to gain access into the 'red zone' – a forbidden area in the centre of the city still completely abandoned a year and half since the earthquake.

Walking around the red zone, it's hard to picture the city in all its former glory. Once-charming piazzas now resemble building sites, with piles of masonry stacked high. Rows of portaloos line the streets. Beautiful medieval houses are propped up with complex scaffolding and wooden beams. A stunning 13th-century church, riddled with cracks and holes, is defying all odds to remain upright. Most striking of all, however, is the fact that these buildings were, and still are, people's homes. People have planned to carry out their lives here and now, though they aren't technically homeless, they are demanding their homes back. Here lies the difference between a house and a home. The people of L'Aquila have been rehoused, but they want their homes back.

Eutizio helped us understand the broader context around the issue of restoration for L'Aquila, which is one of many towns which are close to fault lines in Italy:

The restoration of L'Aquila requires a lot of money but this is the same for many towns in central and southern Italy. Why to intervene in L'Aquila or Naples or in other towns in Sicily and so on? Where to start? But we have to start. We have to take action. We still haven't taken direct action here. We are still lagging behind and we have to be faster because an earthquake can arrive at any moment.

With an estimated 11,000 buildings needing reconstruction, the question quickly becomes what is the future for such a place? Fearing their city might become a latter-day Pompeii, the locals have staged numerous sit-ins and vigils to galvanise the government into taking action. Certainly from an outsider's perspective the sheer scale of the restoration effort seems insurmountable, but there was precious hope from Eutizio:


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Fault Line Living report on the devastation at L'Aquila caused by the 2009 earthquake.

The future for L'Aquila in one sense is certain. I am completely positive that this town will be rebuilt and restored as it was before. I am sure of this because the people of L'Aquila deserve this. I don't think they will give up. But to say when this will happen is difficult. Action has been taken, work is going on, but the real job of the restoration is what people want. If other problems in the country arrive, then maybe L'Aquila will remain behind, but I am sure it will happen in the end. L'Aquila will again be the beautiful historical town it was before the earthquake.

You can catch up on our Icelandic experiences on our Planet Earth blog and our website, and keep following as we continue through Italy and beyond.

Special thanks to:
Dr Gerald Roberts, reader in earthquake geology at Birkbeck, University of London, who has spent 15 years studying the fault lines in Abruzzo
Eutizio Vittori, Natural Hazards Unit, Geological Survey of Italy

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