Arquata del Tronto was never an easy place to live. Picturesque, yes: The snowcapped peak of Monte Vettore forms the backdrop to this collection of medieval villages sandwiched between two national parks in central Italy’s Appenine Mountains. Tiny chapels line the local trails, and one village is known as the land of the fairies, a mythological place where shepherds were lured in by beautiful fairies with goat feet. But the municipality, which includes 15 villages, had a population of 1,200, and the nearest city is 15 miles away along the narrow, winding mountain roads. For a young person, for a young family, there was not much reason to stay. And that was before the earthquakes hit.

Maurizio Paci explains all of this after he escorts us through an army checkpoint to view this community where he and his family have lived for generations, which  was reduced to rubble after three major  earthquakes hit central Italy in 2016. He experienced the tragedy up close: Here in Arquata, he has been on the municipal council for 11 years, while in nearby Amatrice, which was also pummeled during the disasters, he is a police officer. “I was hit on all sides,” he says.

It’s a cool day in March, and the wind blows a shutter open and shut, revealing the plush headboard of a bed inside one of the still-standing buildings. We see a purple ironing board peeking out of an upended roof, a squashed red car, mattresses, bed frames, and bales of hay strewn about.

Giovanni Palaferri, who has begun raising cows on his family’s ancestral land, has joined with other young people to form a business group that is receiving assistance through the Italian Rotarians’ project.

But we also see signs of hope. With the help of Rotarians, some people see a future for these abandoned towns.

It was 3:30 a.m. on 24 August when the first earthquake struck. Paci awoke to the sound of a large mirror crashing to the floor, his parents yelling. He ran outside and saw his neighbors pouring out onto the street. He went to help in Pescara del Tronto, an area village that was so devastated that the mayor told the Italian newspaper il Giornale that it looked like Aleppo, Syria.

“I saw people dead on the street who had escaped from their homes but were hit by debris. I pulled somebody alive from the rubble,” Paci says as we stand outside the ruins. “It was really dark. Everybody was yelling. You didn’t know where to go or who to help first.”

Nearly 300 people died in the 6.2 magnitude quake, including 50 in this area. Two more earthquakes hit the region in late October. The three in rapid succession left thousands homeless.

Earthquakes are not unfamiliar to Italians. Two plates of the earth’s crust, the African and Eurasian plates, are slowly colliding in northeastern Italy, a geologic shift that created the Alps. Meanwhile, the entire area where that collision is happening is drifting southeast. The result is that the ground underneath the Tyrrhenian Basin – the portion of the Mediterranean Sea surrounded by mainland Italy and Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica – is being stretched apart. It’s that stretching that is causing the tectonic activity in the Apennines.

The last of the three earthquakes had a 6.6 magnitude, the strongest to hit Italy in 36 years. It created a huge crack in Monte Vettore and caused the land in a nearby village to drop 2 feet. Homes that had survived the initial earthquake were damaged.

Arquata’s villages were declared uninhabitable because of the continuing aftershocks (including one early in the morning of our visit), and its residents, including Paci, now live in hotels or with family somewhere safer. A tunnel that had connected Arquata to other towns collapsed, and what had been a 15-minute trip became two hours. “The biggest problem is that people have left,” he says. “People are afraid to come back.”

In the weeks after the first earthquake, Rotarians began meeting with members of the affected communities to find out what they needed most. “The days following the earthquake were full of phone calls from everyone who wanted to go help, who wanted to collect materials and so on,” recalls Paolo Raschiatore, 2016-17 governor of Rotary District 2090, home to about 90 percent of the communities damaged by the earthquakes. But too many well-intended helpers jammed the mountain roads, making the work for emergency crews harder, he explains. “It’s not only not necessary; it’s a problem. I asked them to stay home.”

Less than two months before the first temblor, Italian Rotarians had already embarked on a landmark earthquake initiative that was years in the making. The 2014-15 district governor-nominees had decided to focus on earthquake safety as a group, prescient given what was to come. They signed a memorandum of understanding with the national Department of Civil Protection in July 2016 in which Rotarians agreed to create a task force for disaster aid in each district. The groups would organize activities to use Rotarians’ professional skills – technical, legal, medical, and industrial – to support civil protection activities in both ordinary and emergency situations. The project had to be put on hold as the government responded to the recent disasters.

After an earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009, Rotarians had stepped in and raised €2 million to rebuild a wing of the school of engineering at the University of L’Aquila. But following the 2016 earthquakes, the Italian government promised to reconstruct the buildings. So, instead of a construction project, members of District 2090 decided to draw on their expertise as business people to help the communities rebound economically and give young people a reason to return.

Read Original Story Here