On November 23, 1980, I was walking to a bus stop to return to my hometown, which was a 10-minute ride up a mountainside. I was just a few meters from the bus stop when the ground shook violently. The street cracked open. Buildings trembled. Shattered window glass rained down. People screamed and ran in a panic. The awning over storefronts where the bus would have received passengers ripped out of the wall and knocked down the people who happened to stand beneath it. They bled and cried in pain.
People caught in earthquakes always say that the tremor seemed to last a long time. It sure seemed that way to me, too. When I finally emerged from my terror and confusion, I walked home, going around and over fallen trees and other debris, and praying that my mother and father were all right. I froze in place every time I felt an aftershock.
We later learned that the 6.9 Irpinia-Basilicata quake was the strongest one in the Southern Apennine area in 80 years, although almost all of Italy, including Sicily, felt it. Some 2,600 people died and more than 7,500 were wounded that day. My family lost a few relatives as a result of the quake.
The property destruction was devastating and widespread in the province of Avellino, but my small town was spared the worst effects of the quake. My parents’ house suffered some cracks, enough to qualify for a grant for renovations.
In the face of so much devastation, horror, and grief, and cut off from my small social life, I did not know what to do. As limited as my life and prospects had been up to then, I could see nothing good in my future.
Even the relief efforts, which began right away, I saw as a joke. Many of us witnessed trucks full of water, blankets, baby formula, clothes, and other items being offloaded at the homes of municipal officials and politicians. A woman who donated a unique, expensive overcoat was shocked to see it on the back of a politician’s wife a few days later. The astounding level of corruption – including the disappearance of billions of dollars – that resulted from the earthquake relief and reconstruction in Italy is well-documented.
Shortly after the earthquake, the United States offered visas to survivors who wanted to leave Italy. Along with my teenaged cousin, I boarded a plane for New York. He learned English, studied, married, had children, and built a career. I stayed in my sister’s home, worked in a factory and a restaurant, idled hours away in Atlantic City casinos (usually winning), failed to master English, and missed Italy tremendously. I returned home within a year.
My parents’ home was still not repaired, due to red tape and the shenanigans of the architect retained by the town. I also found the house full of relatives whose homes were unfit for habitation. As usual, I had acted impulsively in leaving the U.S., instead of planning my return for a time when the freeloaders would be gone.
But, in large measure, life as I had known it returned to normal. I spent time with my friends again, resumed battling with my dad, and wandered aimlessly and restlessly once more.
I can’t believe that the 40th anniversary of the Irpinia-Basilicata earthquake is in a few weeks.
On the drive from the airport in Naples to my hometown, you can glimpse homes that remain unrepaired since that fateful day.
Fortunately, my life refused to stay frozen in time.