Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

Quakes Violently Shake Northern Italy




JUNE 5: This week brought a third very strong quake over 5 on the Richter scale to the area north of Modena. To date, 26 people have died and 16,000 displaced in the ongoing tremors, including the two fatal “big ones” on May 20 and May 29.  After Monday night’s 5.1 magnitude quake, the clocktower of Novi di Modena finally gave way. For weeks it had symbolized the essence of survival, continuing to chime despite its half crumbled facade. And even after its bells had been tied back, locals could hear the “tick” of its mechanism as the clock hit the top of the hour. But Monday’s aftershock brought it crashing down.  If only mother nature would lend a hand and cease the shaking as the nation tries to right these small Emilia communities turned upside down by this unexpectedly violent wave of seismic activity.

Most recently I visited the heavily damaged Monari Federzoni balsamic vinegar factory. It was one of two very hard hit balsamic vinegar operations in the Modena area, having lost 100,000 bottles, two tanks containing 40,000 liters each and 60 barrels of what locals in Modena call “black gold,” since a few ounces of the highest quality denominations can go for several hundred euros.

Sabrina Federzoni’s great grandmother founded the operation in 1912: “It is  so sad to see it like this, she said as she looked around the attic of leaking barrels.

I also stopped in at the Caretti parmesan cheese operation in San Giovanni in Persiceto, north of Bologna, where 22,000 wheels of parmesan cheese were damaged. At the sales point, locals were lined up to buy 10-euro one-kilo wedges of “solidarity cheese” aged 18 months and calls were coming in from restaurants and buyers across Europe wanting to purchase some. In the large warehouse a few kilometers away, the wooden and steel shelving that held 160 tons of parmesan wheels (stacked 200 to a wall) had fallen sideways on one another like a stack of dominos, creating a mountain of cheese. Workers had laid down a large plank to slide the 40-kilo rounds from one person to the next. Most of the damaged cheese is destined to be melted down for singles or other kinds of cheese.


Over the course of the last two weeks I visited at least another half dozen other factories, and wove that reporting into this in-depth piece in The Guardian on the quake’s economic impact.

MAY 30: Tuesday’s earthquake in Emilia Romagna has now claimed  the lives of  17 people, as a fourth worker was pulled lifeless from the rubble Wednesday at the partially collapsed Haematronic factory, which produces medical disposables and devices near Mirandola. Another three workers died in the Bbg factory, which uses hi-tech processing systems to manufacture high-precision components for the biomedical, packaging, automation and food sectors. Another three employees died at the Meta factory, which does precision machining for biomedical technology sector. Many questions are being raised about the technical engineering checks done on the structures of these factories and whether or not they should have been certified as safe for workers to go back in after the initial May 20 earthquake.  A priest, Father Ivan Martini, died while trying to salvage a statue of the Madonna from a small town church. He also worked as the prison chaplain in Modena, where he was well-liked by inmates. The other deaths were residents in small towns hardest hit in the province of Modena. Several hundred have been injured, 14,000 people have been displaced from their homes and a large percentage of the region’s manufacturing industry has been damaged.

MAY 29: Another day of reporting from the earthquake red zone (still experiencing strong aftershocks, so this time with hard hat) as tragedy struck again in Emilia Romagna 9 days after the first quake, this time with the epicenter slightly northwest, in the area of Mirandola and Cavezzo (above). I visited both places while doing the reporting for this piece in The Guardian  and later while sending in dispatches to the BBC and CNN.   The quake claimed at least 17 lives, including that of a priest who had gone into a damaged church to salvage a statue of a madonna, and wounded at least 350 others. While most of the severe damage was limited to small towns in the province of Modena, the quake was felt in Bologna, Milan, Turin and as far north as Austria. Approximately 8000 people were forced out of their homes and some were still being extracted from the rubble as darkness fell. Many were planning to spend the night in cars, tents or campers. Residents walked the streets of their small town still wearing bandages and casts from being injured in the quakes. A number of elderly nursing home residents were being treated outside.  In several small towns in the Mirandola area, Renaissance-era churches were nearly entirely destroyed, including this lovely “Pieve di San Luca” at Camurana, a tiny hamlet of Medolla.  With tears in his eyes, a local resident told me how the community had lovingly restored the exterior two years ago and the interior, including frescoes, 4 years ago. The church, which dates back to 1439, was noted for its splendid organ, built in 1723 by Domenico Traeri.

But on top of  the tragic loss of life that has already doubled that of the original quake, and the massive blow to the region’s cultural patrimony, the economic impact will also be significant. A number of factories were damaged in the original quake and many more this second quake. Some union officials raised questions Tuesday about why factories that experienced collapses had been deemed safe for employees to go back to work in. Below is the side wall of the Menu specialty food products warehouse. The company, once a salami factory, now has 200 employees, 30,000 customers and a 52 million euro turnover annually, with more than 450 products in its catalog.

Parmesan cheese warehouses were also hard hit. At least one roadside shop in the Modena province was selling wedges of 14-month aged parmesan at 10.5 euros a kilo (it normally costs at least double that). The price of cheese, however, it the least of Emilia Romagna’s problems today. “I know we will rebuild,” the Mirandola parish priest Father Carlo Truzzi told me as nuns prayed in song behind him. “But it is also a question of resources. These cultural monuments are very costly to restructure. There are very few churches between Modena and Ferrara that did not sustain some sort of damage. We will pray. We will roll up our sleeves. But we also need resources. ”

Below is the reportage from the original May 20 quake.

This is the before and after picture I snapped while on the earthquake scene Sunday in Finale Emilia. To the left, the clock tower just before a large aftershock, 5.1 on the Richter scale, hit around 15:15 in the afternoon. I had just taken the picture on the left and walked a few blocks away when a terrifying rumble sent us all running out into the street as debris tumbled down. To the right, what was left of the clock tower when I returned to the site, which was quickly sealed off to the public. I spent Sunday at the epicenter of the earthquake, reporting for The Guardian (story here). I later sent radio dispatches to the BBC, and in this interview with Radio New Zealand,  a large aftershock hit while we were live on the air (Minute 1:20).  By the end of the first day, the death toll had risen to 7, with at least 50 more wounded and more than 200 aftershocks over a 24-hour period. Monday I returned to visit several damaged towns, as displaced residents waited out the pouring rain in tent cities erected by civil protection authorities. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Mario Monti is expected to tour the quake zone and a decision will likely be made about whether to declare a state of emergency for the area.


On Monday,  civil protection authorities estimated that 5000 residents of the area would be spending a second night in tents and shelters as house-to-house safety checks were carried out. Approximately 5000 jobs were also at risk, union leaders said, as hundreds of companies kept their doors closed as they surveyed damage to production lines, warehouses and infrastructure. The quake’s economic impact in this industrially productive region could reach several hundred million euros. The cultural patrimony lost in the region was also significant, with damage to a number of religious edifices and ancient palazzi. Monday I surveyed the ruined castle in San Felice sul Panaro and the city of Mirandola, where a number of streets remained sealed off around the 16th-century cathedral, a section of its front cornice in pieces on the ground, its front stained glass window shattered.  I also visited  Bondeno, where Moroccan worker Naouch Tarik, 29, was killed  in the polyester factory where he was working the night shift. A number of agricultural buildings sustained damage between Bondeno and Finale Emilia, where emotions were beginning to fray as rained poured down on the tent city erected to temporarily house the displaced. When can we go back in? That was the question everyone was asking and there were no certain answers yet. Many buildings in the old city centers of the hardest hit towns remain unstable. Strong aftershocks continued throughout the day, just take a look at this running list of earthquakes occurring in Italy in the last 30 days (over 2 on the Richter scale) compiled by the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.


In the morning, I was at the Tecopress plant in Dosso when emergency workers took away the body of 57-year-old Gerardo Cesaro, who was buried by debris while running for the door with the other 10 workers on the night shift in the metal machining factory that made car components for Audi, BMW and Daimler Benz.  Married with two children, Cesaro’s colleagues remembered him as a fine worker and kind man, who was operating a forklift while transporting fused aluminum inside the plant and simply didn’t make it out on time.  Just one kilometer down the road, this scene

of a small family-run business that makes glass shower boxes. The roof caved in on the production circuit. The family who owns the company lives in the back of the same building. “There is nothing to be done,” said Valeria Balboni. “We will have to close.”

Just a few hundred meters away, workers and curious onlookers came to see what was left of the twisted blue steel of the Sant’ Agostino Ceramics plant. They stared, the silence broken only by the eery sound of ceramic tiles clanking down from high scaffolding into the knot of bent metal.  Two workers, Nicola Cavicchi, 35, and Leonardo Ansaloni, 51, died under the rubble as they tried to escape. Another factory worker died in another nearby town. And at least two elderly women lost their lives, one after a beam fell in her home, and another of fright. Just down the road from the ceramics plant, shaken residents in the small town of Buoncompra rested on cots in a makeshift emergency center and awaited the green light to go back to their homes. The quake destroyed their parish church of Saint Martin, and damaged at least another half dozen religious edifices in the region, where weddings, funerals and communions had been slated to be held today. Pictured below right.

In Finale Emilia, rubble was strewn along nearly every street in the old city center, where stunned residents had been walking around since the big quake hit at 4 a.m.  The tallest tower and one flank of the city’s castle collapsed, as did the clocktower (pictured above) and the city hall belltower (below).Many residents were afraid to go back into their homes, as strong aftershocks continued throughout the day, sending tiles, bricks and cornices tumbling down into the streets.  Several small towns in the Bologna-Ferrara-Modena countryside sent out calls for engineers, architects and other professionals to come assist in assessing the damage.  An industry association announced that at least 300,000 rounds of parmesan cheese had been lost  in warehouse collapses. The full economic impact and human toll of the quake is still being calculated.

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