Italy Quake Adds to Renzi Challenges as Death Toll at Least 120

Italy Earthquake Reduces Towns to Rubble
  • Premier already faces weak economy, high debt, political risk
  • Collapsed buildings, relief efforts in Amatrice, other towns

A powerful earthquake hit central Italy in the middle of the night, killing at least 120 people, in the latest challenge to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as he tries to speed up the country’s economy and overhaul its political system.

The quake struck at 3:36 a.m. Wednesday, destroying small mountain towns in the regions of Lazio, Umbria and Marche and burying victims in the rubble of collapsed buildings, the Civil Protection agency said on Wednesday. The death toll continued to climb throughout the day as rescuers searched for survivors and bodies amid the debris.

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“At least 120 lives came to an end,” Renzi said, speaking to reporters in Rieti, central Italy after a visit to some of the worst-affected towns and villages. “Very serious work will now be needed.”

The catastrophe hit as the premier already faces criticism for Italy’s economic stagnation and rising public debt as he faces a referendum in the fall that could decide his political future. His response may be crucial to his levels of public support. A survey last month by the IPR Marketing Institute showed 52 percent of respondents opposed Renzi’s proposed reform, with 48 percent in favor.

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Then-Premier Silvio Berlusconi first won praise then censure for his response to the 2009 earthquake that devastated the city of L’Aquila that killed more than 300 people.

“Such an event can add to the list of risks that Renzi is already facing or it can be an opportunity to show his capacity for leadership in a crisis situation,” Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at Rome’s Luiss University, said in a phone interview. “People will certainly compare his performance to that of Berlusconi at the time of the L’Aquila earthquake.”

Felt in Rome

The 6.0-magnitude tremor hit at a depth of 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) around 43 kilometers from the town of Rieti, according to the Italian Institute of Geology and Vulcanology. Shaking was felt in buildings in Rome and there were a series of aftershocks reported.

“Everything collapsed, there was just dust, and now there’s nothing there,” said Silvia, a young woman standing on the side of the road in the hard-hit village of Amatrice, who declined to give her last name.

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Relief efforts were hampered by damage to radio and satellite links, said Civil Protection.

“We must be equipped for the emergencies of the next few hours, days and weeks, but for now the priority above all is to continue searching through the rubble,” Renzi said in a televised address. “I will visit the affected area late this afternoon.”

Italian President

Italian President Sergio Mattarella was in close contact with Civil Protection since the early hours of the morning and returned to Rome from Palermo, Sicily, according to a statement from his office. Lazio’s regional president, Nicola Zingaretti, described the situation as an “incredible catastrophe” and urged people to not to clog the main relief routes.

Collapsed Buildings

Buildings lay in ruins throughout the historical center of Amatrice, with a population of about 2,500, around 140 kilometers northeast of Rome. Relief crews and residents searched through the rubble as dust-covered injury victims were taken away in stretchers.

The road leading to Amatrice was filled with cracks and littered with boulders as people, some still in their pajamas, were still streaming away from the worst-hit areas at mid-morning. Television pictures showed an almost completely collapsed village center. At least one child was rescued from the rubble.

"The houses are gone and people are under, there are likely dead,” Amatrice Mayor Sergio Pirozzi told Sky TG24. "Please help us, the roads are closed, please."

The mayor of Accumoli, Stefano Petrucci, told RAI at least four people -- a family with two children -- were trapped under rubble there and the town had no power. At least one person was killed, he said.

The 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, about 115 kilometers southeast of Amatrice, was the country’s deadliest in almost three decades. It damaged thousands of buildings in and around the medieval city of L’Aquila and caused billions of euros in damage. 

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