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L'Aquila Shame: Five Years After Quake, Schools Not Rebuilt

Child's play in L'Aquila
Child's play in L'Aquila
Flavia Amabile

L'AQUILA — In this city in central Italy, there is an entire generation of children who ride in cars and go to restaurants like other Italian kids, but still have never gone to a proper school.

These are the kids from L'Aquila, hit by an earthquake five years ago — on April 6, 2009 — that killed 297 in the region and leveled much of the midsized city's historic center. Since then, from the sound of the first bell in the morning through school days that can last eight hours, the children sit and study in prefabricated metal boxes.

To be fair, these prefab buildings were top-notch when they were installed five years ago. But, time takes its toll and even the most solid of metal turns tin-like, and scotch tape is used to seal cracks on the floor, ceilings collect water, sewers don’t work, windows don’t open and a heating system is blamed for a surge in allergies and respiratory infections.

In 2012, another earthquake struck Italy, this time hitting the Emilia Romagna region northeast of L'Aquila, and just a few months later 58 schools were rebuilt. Yet in L'Aquila and its surrounding towns, a few months after its quake, it was 31 MUSPs (Provisional Buildings for School Use) that arrived. Constructing them cost 32 million euros, spread out among 52 contractors and 154 subcontractors. These are important figures that let just over 6,000 children return back to school, in what was supposed to be temporary quarters.

Five years later, 6,000 students spend their days in these same temporary structures. Something isn’t right. The private schools have been rebuilt, so why not the state-run ones?

“Maybe it’s a misunderstanding and the ‘p’ in MUSP actually stands for permanent rather than provisional,” jokes Silvia Frezza, a teacher who works in one of these prefabs in the nearby town of Sassa.

Scared by the idea that this joke might actually be true, the locals decided to make their voices heard this past winter. Last month, Stefania Pezzopane, a local senator who was head of the province at the time of the disaster, wrote to Italy's new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to ask him to take care of the schools in the district that have become unsustainable black holes.

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In L'Aquila. Photo: Stéphane PIA (via Flickr)

Blame game

City Mayor Massimo Cialente recently returned to the Italian parliament to meet politicians who promised another 180 million euros, as well as the possibility that the resources devoted to reconstruction after the earthquake could be excluded from the Stability Pact the country has with the European Union. But these funds aren’t necessarily earmarked for the schools.

Is something finally beginning to happen after years of paralysis? “I don’t agree that nothing has been done,” argues Cialente. “The schools that could have been repaired have been. Now we’re beginning the building of those that have been awaiting reconstruction, and it’s a huge project. We’re making the first campus for the middle-school students. But in the meantime, the schools are functioning.”

But in L'Aquila they don’t want to even hear the word “project.” From delays and postponement, to promise after broken promise, those who were beginning school when the earthquake struck are now moving into adolesence, and have had their hopes dashed.

These are the students who go into their classes every day, seeing their teachers and doing lessons as though everything were normal. But, everything isn’t normal in a MUSP, where nobody has even come to change the air filters a single time in more than four years.

“First, there was a warning for respiratory infections,” says Silvia Frezza. “And now the filters have to be changed every six months.” Nor is it normal to study in a place where the floor is covered in scotch tape because the boards are coming apart, and duct tape has to be used to keep them together to avoid the kids cutting themselves on loose parts.

The windows of these containers, meanwhile, have to stay closed all day. “The reconstruction of the schools isn’t on the political agenda of this city. But we think that the future of L'Aquila should start here,” explains Sara Vegni of ActionAid Abruzzo, which has brought workshops, events and, above all, a hard push for reconstruction.

“It’s true — we’re late,” admits Cialente, “But it’s former mayor Gianni Chiodi’s bad management that is to blame. When he was in charge, he left the schools out of 226 million euros in 2009, giving it all to Abruzzo region and not just to the seismic area. He gave it to all buildings, not just schools. In any case we’re getting there. I believe that within three years we’ll have finished all the work.”

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Calmez-Vous, Americans: It's Quite OK To Call Us "The French"

A widely mocked tweet by the Associated Press tells its reporters to avoid dehumanizing labels such as "the poor" or "the French". But one French writer replies that the real dehumanizing threat is when open conversation becomes impossible.

Parisians sitting on a café terrasse.

Parisians sitting on a café terrasse.

Dirk Broddin on Flickr
Gaspard Koenig


PARIS — The largest U.S. news agency, the Associated Press (AP) tweeted a series of recommendations aimed at journalists: “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing 'the' labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated. Instead use, wording such as people with mental illnesses.”

The inclusion of “The French” in this list of groups likely to be offended has evoked well-deserved sarcasm. It finally gives me the opportunity to be part of a minority and to confirm at my own expense, while staying true to John Stuart Mill's conception of free speech: that offense is not a crime.

Offense should prompt quips, denial, mockery, and sometimes indifference. It engages conflict in the place where a civilized society accepts and cultivates it: in language.

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