Posted by: cgratton | April 9, 2009

In Historic Cities, Natural Disasters Have Bigger Implications

As aftershocks continue to surge through central Italy, thousands of earthquake survivors from the 26 affected villages are left to desolately stand amidst their crumbling homes, and try to keep hope for the safe return of those still missing.

The 6.3 magnitude earthquake rocked through Italy’s mountainous Abruzzo region on 3:30 a.m. Monday, April 7, leaving 260 dead, 1,000 injured and 100 in critical condition.

Tens of thousands of homes and historic monuments have been reduced to rubble.  This is most apparent in the region’s capital, L’Aquila, a charming 13th-century Medieval fortress town, which lay at the earthquake’s epicenter.  As reported on the website of UK newspaper, the Guardian, experts are now surveying the damage done to L’Aquila’s historic buildings, and have released preliminary findings that “incalculable” destruction has occurred.

A before-and-after look at one of the historic government building in LAquila

A before-and-after look at one of the historic government buildings in L'Aquila

“The damage is more serious than we can imagine,” Giuseppe Proietti, a culture ministry official, told the Guardian. “The historic center of L’Aquila has been devastated.”

A huge section of L’Aquila’s famous Romanesque basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio collapsed; a 16th-century castle has been badly damaged; the 14th-century Tower of Medici was reduced to a pile a rubble in a village nearby; and dozens of other historic churches, cathedrals and buildings have taken a serious beating.

Even after the initial quake ended, some 280 aftershocks continued to pummel the area, shaking the foundations of severely-weakened buildings and furthering the damage.  The strongest of these aftershocks is reported to have caused minor cracks to the thermal baths in Rome, some 60 miles from L’Aquila.

The Santa Maria Paganica church has stood in L’Aquila since the 14th century

The Santa Maria Paganica church has stood in L’Aquila since the 14th century

Although the Abruzzo region is no stranger to seismic activity, and it even had to rebuild after an equally devastating quake in 1703,  Monday’s earthquake doesn’t seem to realistically leave much hope for saving the city’s beloved cultural heritage.

A question then arises: even if a historic city rebuilds itself with architectural exactness, can it ever be the same?  Can a city ever truly reclaim its cultural authenticity after so much loss?  Will the scars of the event ever really go away?

An aeriel view of the citys damage doesnt exactly inspire hope

An aerial view of the city's damage doesn't exactly inspire hope

In the past five years these questions have had to be harshly confronted several times.  When the horrific Tsunami of 2004 killed over 230,000 people in 11 different countries, and resulted in billions of dollars in damages.  When Hurricane Wilma thrashed through Mexico, leaving beloved resort destinations Cancun and Cozumel in ruins.  And of course, when Hurricane Katrina demolished the famous Creole capital of America, New Orleans.

Some have been more successful than others. Mexican coastal cities rose quickly from their ashes in time to partake in the following tourist season.  And Asia rebounded (albeit slowly) due to the overwhelming and immediate response of global support; the rebuilding effort received more donations than needed to completely rebuild, and even make some areas better than before the wreckage.

But New Orleans’ struggle for redemption hasn’t been as smooth or successful.  After 80 percent of the historically soulful city was flooded in 2005, relief efforts have been floundering to keep their promise of progress and restoration. And even if the city ever gets fully resuscitated back to life, have the waters washed away even a little of its spirit?

A watery aftermath in New Orleans

A watery aftermath in New Orleans

Of course I would argue that the spirit of its citizens will never die, as it is their hope and faith that lovingly nurse cities like New Orleans and L’Aquila back to health.  But it seems that a historic city’s own narrative can never fully hide that dark chapter of destruction from its walls, or hold on tight enough to not let a piece of tangible history slip away from it into oblivion.  Memories of the city’s previous days will remain, but for how long?

I would love to hear what others think, and invite you to leave comments below!


  1. Wow! You are kicking booty! Please, please, please keep your blog going after this class ends!

  2. This blog is where I now come to read what’s going on in the world. Your blog includes not only interesting current news, but prompts readers to actually think of the ramifications of whatever the story is about. It’s news with brains and heart. You go girl! As for the loss of the historic architecture of any city after a natural disaster, all I can say is I believe it becomes part of the fabric of the culture. The spirit of the people, as you mention, is the foundation of any culture. The buildings are just the icing on the cake.

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