Restoring university called key to recovery from Italy quake

Alessandra Tarantino/associated pressA dormitory at the university in L'Aquila, Italy, partially collapsed in the April 6 quake. Some students returned to classes yesterday, some in the tent camps now their homes. Alessandra Tarantino/associated pressA dormitory at the university in L'Aquila, Italy, partially collapsed in the April 6 quake. Some students returned to classes yesterday, some in the tent camps now their homes. (Alessandra Tarantino/associated press)
By Ariel David
Associated Press / April 16, 2009
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L'AQUILA, Italy - Reviving L'Aquila's once-vibrant university and student life are key to restoring a city that was turned into a ghost town by last week's quake.

But it will be a long, costly, and bureaucratic process to reopen the bars, shops, and hostels catering to students in the medieval town. Despite many previous quakes in Italy, the country has no national reconstruction plan after a natural disaster.

Italy's interior minister said Tuesday that about $16 billion will be needed to rebuild L'Aquila and the surrounding area. The government is drawing up plans but survivors wonder how they will face the coming years.

"There is little industry here, the economy was based on the students from out of town, and they are not coming back for a long time," said Daniele Cerrone, who owned a pub in L'Aquila's ravaged historic center.

"In the meantime what are we going to do? Buy clothes and go the pub between ourselves?"

Thousands from Italy and abroad study at L'Aquila University, a storied school that traces its roots to a Jesuit college founded in 1596.

Among the 294 people killed by the April 6 quake many were students, including at least six pulled from a collapsed dormitory in the center. The 6.3-magnitude quake damaged or leveled tens of thousands of homes and displaced some 55,000 people - including 33,000 living in tent camps set up across the region.

Officials said yesterday that 20,000 of those displaced probably won't return home.

"Some of my colleagues are traumatized and want to transfer to another university," said Giulia Riccobono, 25, a psychology student who commutes from Rome.

"We need to stay. There are more important things than not being scared or having perfect lodgings," she said.

Of L'Aquila University's 27,500 students, nearly half are from out of town, and holding on to them is essential to the recovery of the city of some 70,000, said Ferdinando di Orio, university rector.

University buildings in the city center have collapsed and others on the outskirts were severely damaged, di Orio said. He did not provide a financial estimate.

The faculty of sciences, a reinforced-concrete building that suffered only light damage, became the de facto headquarters for the postquake university. Several faculty members set up temporary offices in the entrance hall.

University workers wearing T-shirts that read "I don't collapse" set up desks and computers, while professors and students donned helmets to check out damage in some areas of the building otherwise declared safe.

Primary and secondary students returned to classes yesterday - some in the tent camps that are now their homes - but it will take more time for the university to find new venues for lessons and exams.

So far, Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government has approved subsidies for families and business owners as well as $132 million in emergency spending, and suspended payments on mortgages and loans until the end of the year.

But broader action will be taken only when the Cabinet gathers for a meeting, expected next week in L'Aquila, to roll out reconstruction measures, which reports say could include new taxes to fund rebuilding.

Italy is one of Europe's most seismically active areas and has suffered at least one major quake in each of the last three decades. But the country's often unstable governments have never adopted basic recovery rules, opting instead to pass specific laws for each disaster, officials and experts said.

Without set rules on how to apply for disaster relief or a specific agency, like the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, charged with distributing funds, the process is open to delays, corruption, and unequal treatment for victims of different disasters, they said.

"Every time we need to start from scratch to reach the same results," said Vincenzo Riommi, the official in charge of reconstruction in Italy's last major quake, which hit the central Umbria region in 1997, killing 11 people and devastating medieval buildings and churches.

Though not all the money has been allocated and works are still incomplete, most of those displaced in the quake were back in their homes five or six years later, he told the Associated Press.

That's a success story in Italy, where reconstruction for a 1980 quake that killed some 3,000 people in southern regions lasted more than 20 years, amid corruption scandals and infiltration by organized crime in building projects.

Economist Tito Boeri suggested that the government introduce compulsory insurance for buildings in case of natural disasters to reduce the cost of reconstruction for taxpayers.