A month after quake, gratitude turns to impatience

A month after an earthquake killed nearly 300 people in Italy, the initial goodwill towards authorities for their swift handling of the disaster appears to be giving way to anger as survivors face an uncertain wait for promised funds and the prospect of a long summer in tents.

Italy’s government is promising to start providing the thousands made homeless in the central Italian region of Abruzzo with new, furnished houses by September — in what would be record speed anywhere. But continued aftershocks, rain and chilly temperatures have made life increasingly difficult for survivors in tents, which left-leaning newspapers have seized upon to issue long accounts of the “nightmare” of life in the 170 tent camps.

“I feel like I’ve already spent an entire lifetime inside here but only 30 days have passed,” one tent-dweller, Claudio, told La Repubblica newspaper, which said the arrival of reconstruction funds in installments meant some people might have to wait nearly two years for a house.

A government decree promising 8 billion euros ($10.7 billion) to rebuild the areas devastated by the earthquake has also fallen under a cloud of controversy. Mayors in quake-hit towns complain it undermines their role in rebuilding efforts and the opposition say it is inadequate.

Even normally pro-government bodies like the business lobby Confindustria are beginning to question how much money will actually arrive, and when.

“The first thing that must be done is to understand well how much money is really and immediately available for spending, because businessmen have told us that operations related to re-opening businesses need to be done quickly,” Emma Marcegaglia, the head of Confindustria, said on a tour around the hard-hit town of L’Aquila this week.

The opposition Democratic Party’s Pier Luigi Bersani, meanwhile, is accusing the government of treating the disaster like a “second division earthquake”.

All this criticism is a far cry from the initial hours and days following the quake, when glowing praise flowed in from home and abroad for a swift and seamless relief effort that appeared to highlight a side of Italy that belies its reputation for chaos and slow-moving bureaucracy.

At least seven different units – the police, the elite military police, the forest corps, the army, firefighters, the financial police and the civil protection agency – rolled into L’Aquila hours after the pre-dawn quake. The first tents for the newly homeless were up barely 12 hours after disaster struck.

By then, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had already cancelled a trip to Moscow and held a midday press conference in L’Aquila, where he didn’t skip a beat as an aftershock rocked the building while he was speaking.

The next morning, a long row of portable toilets had been set up in the main tent camp outside the town center, and relief workers were already going from tent to tent offering diapers and sanitary napkins.

Bathrooms for the disabled with running water were next to appear, followed by more tents, each furnished with beds, new mattresses, linen and blankets, prompting praise from survivors, including one woman who called relief workers “angels”.

The 170 tent camps that were rapidly set up house more than 33,000 people today, while the remaining 32,000 left homeless have been put up in hotels requisitioned by the government or in private homes.

The efficient roll-out of relief efforts quickly boosted Berlusconi’s popularity, allowing him to declare last week that he is the world’s most popular leader and move a Group of Eight summit in July, long-planned for a Sardinian island, to the quake zone.

But the premier, who is also having to handle an ugly public spat with his wife, who wants a divorce, will need to make good on his promise to rebuild the quake zone quickly and find homes for survivors in months, or risk losing the goodwill he has built up.