We generally spend the entire month of August and into early September at our house in Italy – allowing us to experience the pronounced change in temperature and weather that occurs like clockwork on September 1. This year, with our daughter starting college, we left Italy on August 11. So, we were here in the States when the earthquake first hit on August 24. At the same time that we were packing all of our daughter’s neatly organized belongings into a rental car, and trying to calmly contain the explosive emotions of sending our only child into the next phase of her (and our) life’s journey, we were intently trying to reach our friends and neighbors in Italy to make sure they were safe.
On the map, our town of Penna San Giovanni is a good 2 hour/97 km drive through and around the mountains, from Norcia, the epicenter of the quake. We took this drive in mid-July when we went to see the astounding fields of wild flowers in Castellucio del Norcia, driving through Arquata del Tronto, one of the towns hardest hit. It was a beautiful trip – the mountain areas are stunning and the flower fields are how I imagine tulips in the Netherlands. But as the crow flies, our town is just 25 miles from the earthquake epicenter, and maps were showing the affected area spreading east in our direction out to the Adriatic. Initially, it seemed from what we could glean that our town did not suffer too much damage. But aftershocks that occurred on August 28, changed the story. We still know little about the extent of damage in our area and how it has affected our friends, our neighbors and our house.
After the initial quake on August 24, a friend who has lived in Penna San Giovanni his entire life told us that more damage occurred there in areas facing the mountains. He, and we, live on another side of the ridge where there should have been less damage. Nonetheless, he and his family were sleeping outside in tents pitched on their land. When the aftershocks occurred Sunday, we heard bits and pieces of information on the internet that indicated substantial damage to houses on the road from Penna to Gualdo, the next town over. In Villa Pilotti, where our friend was married in a jewel of a neo-Gothic church, houses were damaged, as was the church, which did not crumble, but showed cracks on both the interior and exterior and damage inside the church.
Our friends who own horses feared the animals might panic, but luckily found them calm in their field. They are Italian horses, and have experienced terremoti before, taking in stride even the aftershocks.
An editor from the Times of London was interviewed on National Public Radio last week, ironically for us, while she was vacationing in our town. She reported extensive damage to the house where she was staying with friends, with plaster falling from the ceiling of the top floor of the house and having to route the children sleeping there into the garden in the middle of the night. At the time she was interviewed she observed that the roads were unaffected, but cracks in buildings were evident.
We texted our elderly friends who responded that they and their 1960’s era house, more cement and brick than stone, were unhurt –that there was plenty fear but little damage. They too were lucky to avoid damage from Sunday’s aftershocks, but we’ve learned there are some 85 people from our town whose homes are no longer habitable. One of our biggest worries is for a friend who lives in Perugia. Her mother was born in Accumoli and spends most of the summer there with her relatives. We were most concerned about her; relieved to find she was safe and her daughter was on her way to bring her back to Perugia. But still we worry for her relatives and their town and homes.
Last week, the day after the quake, our dear friend Saranella, the engineer on our house, did a site visit and reported that our “strong and beautiful” house showed no obvious damage. All that she saw out of order were open closet doors in the master bedroom. Since the aftershocks of Sunday, we do not know if our house is damaged. Our friends are likely extremely preoccupied with immediate issues of their families, their own homes and damage to the town. We will hear from them “when the dust settles.” But we hope we are among the lucky ones –when we restored our house in 2008, essentially two thirds of it was torn down, the materials were saved and the house was re-built, strengthened and reinforced. Saranella and her brother engineered our house with the chief foes – earthquakes and water – always in mind. Consequently, we hope we will have been spared major damage from this disaster.
Originally our house was constructed in the 1750’s and was, for most of its life, a typical country farmhouse. It had a dirt floor where the animals lived and no foundation. The house rose three stories above that, and we eliminated that third floor when we re-built– opting instead for higher ceilings and a loft in my daughter’s bedroom. There were many instances along the re-construction process where the house was fortified.
At the initial stages of building, it was determined based on soil surveys that the house needed reinforcement on the south side, where the earth was softer. This was the actual first step where workmen and materials arrived on site. Steel pipes were sunk at the side of the house and filled with concrete. Eventually, these became the house’s foundation.
Plastic forms that looked almost like four-legged stools formed a base for the floors, allowing air to circulate underneath the house to combat moisture. We saved and re-used original wooden ceiling beams wherever we could, especially in what was once the barn and eventually the kitchen. These wooden beams were reinforced with steel and then concrete to assure they would not fail. The walls of the house are 24 inches thick– new walls have original stone on the exterior, construction brick, insulation, and plaster or stone on the interior. The new roof for the house was made of cement; then covered with a waterproof membrane, and the original roof tiles were re-installed. Where the roof meets the walls of the house, there is a thick concrete band that runs all the way around the house. This band stabilizes the building against shifts in the earth.
The devastation of life in the small towns affected by the quake is heartbreaking. We visited L’Aquila this summer in search of a special torrone I’d read about, and were deeply saddened. Seven years after the 2009 earthquake, virtually the entire town is still covered in scaffolding, the smell of dust and wet concrete permeates the narrow streets, rivulets of muddy water run along the cobblestones, storekeepers have moved their merchandise into the square in rickety kiosks. The thought of this happening to our village is chilling. From what we’ve seen through web-based photos, the main piazza of our town is still intact. The most damage seems to have occurred on the outskirts– on roads leading to the next villages. Small town life in Italy already seems so precarious economically and socially, with young people deserting these communities in search of jobs and livelihood. Add to this the reality of natural disaster, and the traditions of this older way of life seem even more frail.
A portion of our town’s outer wall collapsed a couple years ago, as did a portion of our driveway, during a particularly rainy and muddy spring. We had our driveway fixed and the town wall was re-built within a year or two. The new section of the wall doesn’t look the same of course, but the hope is that newer building codes are adhered to and damage to precious structures and cherished homes will be repaired to last another five or six centuries. As do so many, we feel terribly helpless from here, and would willingly don hardhats and pick up shovels if we could possibly be of help. We will have our eyes and our thoughts on the people of our village and other communities devastated by this tragedy as we grieve with them, hoping they will have the strength and support to re-build and carry on.