From Wenchuan to L'Aquila, key after the quake is the work of volunteers


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A fireman showing the Bank's Global Disaster Management team around Onna.

Two countries, two cultures, a world apart, but I have learnt this week that the human face of the Wenchuan and L’Aquila earthquake tragedies is not dissimilar.  I am in the beautiful historic town of L’Aquila, devastated by the earthquake which struck the Ambruzzo region of central Italy at 3:30am on April 6, 2009. 

Sharing global best practice is one of our most important jobs as Bank staff.  This past week a group of eleven staff from all over the Bank, including four from country offices (Haiti, Aceh, Islamabad and Beijing), who all share the task of helping Bank clients prepare for and respond to disasters came to Italy to learn about the L’Aquila earthquake response.  We are here as guests of the Civil Protection Agency of Italy – a most gracious host – to learn from their experiences in managing the L’Aquila earthquake.  The mission has been organized by the Bank’s recently formed Global Expert Team for Disaster Management, of which I am a member. 

Damage at Onna.

Last Wednesday we visited Onna, a small village close to L’Aquila.  As we pass through the police cordon and walk down the main street of Onna with collapsed masonry houses on either side, for a moment I feel like I am in Sichuan again.  We can see clothes hanging in closets, their doors ajar on the top floor of a house that no longer has walls.   Toys, personal papers and the daily paraphernalia of life is scattered through the masonry rubble.  A fleet of crushed cars is neatly parked and fenced on a neighboring field.  A foal – still on legs so spindly it must have been born after the quake – curiously noses the 42 bouquets of flowers lined up in memory of the villagers who died in this quake.

Just next to the devastation is an immaculately run tent camp housing more than 250 survivors.  Blue tents arranged in neat rows surround the central camp services.  A large tent houses the canteen, behind which is a fully-equipped cooking trailer.  The lady in charge of the kitchen – a volunteer who has been in the camp since hours after the earthquake – apologizes that the espresso machine is not working, but assures us that another is on its way from Rome for the camp residents.  She belongs to a volunteer organization from a neighboring region of Italy, fully trained and prepared by the Italian Civil Protection Agency to respond in just such an emergency.  The lady tells us that she recently lost her job because of the economic crisis and she is glad to have the chance to contribute to the recovery of Onna.

The largest tent right in the center of the camp is the temporary church.  Next to it is a wooden bell tower built by the fire brigade to house the bells that they retrieved from the collapsed church in the village, so that the bells may continue to ring out over Onna.  Nearby, nuns attend infants and toddlers in a tented childcare center which opened 2 days ago.  I am moved to see how volunteerism and religion are starting to bring this community together again to heal.

Volunteer in the camp at Onna.

The team is particularly impressed with the professionalism of the volunteer movement – and we believe this is one of the amazing accomplishments of the Italian disaster response system.  Twenty seven nationally registered volunteer groups and more than 3,000 locally registered groups are fully equipped and on standby at all times to assist their countrymen in the event of a disaster.  The passion and professionalism of the volunteers we met this past week has made a strong impression on all of us and it is obvious how well they collaborate with the government and just how critical they have been to the success of the response to the L’Aquila earthquake. 

This week has been a unique opportunity to gather new knowledge for the benefit of our own clients.  It has also been an opportunity for me to understand, once again, that human tragedy from disasters has no borders, and that hope comes in the form of the many people who work so hard to help the victims recover.


Mara Warwick

World Bank Country Director for Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand

Join the Conversation

J Martelli
December 02, 2009

Dear Dr Warwick

It's good that you're helping China and Italy to heal from their respective earthquakes. But as a proud Italian in Australia, and a former Uni of Adelaide student, and after reading the aforementioned magazine, I am BITTERLY DISGUSTED with your Italophobic comments. To refresh your memory, here is what you said:
"Italian people are much more demanding of the government when something goes wrong. In Italy, the maximum number of people they could put in a tent camp and still keep the peace was about 200 families. In China, they housed thousands of families in tents without any complaints. The Italians said there was no way they could have managed an earthquake on the scale that happened in China. It tells you something about the capacity of the Chinese to handle things on a massive scale."

Now, we Italians, for starters, don't have 1.3 billion people or a socialist government or hundreds of millions of workers being paid $2-3 a day. We are actually WELL past the phase of living a subsistance lifestyle. And, from the days of the Great Roman Empire, we developed an intolerance to voluntary government complacency. But, you're insisting that Italy has a semi viable social organisation and no viable future. Whereas me being Italian is what I felt the best thing that could ever happen to me.

It is actually people like you who gave Italy enough bad publicity to worsen the country's 10 year economic stagnation. And, I don't go bragging on about, say, the UK's recent parliamentary crises or its shocking descent into relative hell due to the GFC, of which Italy's problems appear to be pailing more by comparison every day! Unless you and other global superiors (inside and outside Italy) like yourself cease the habit of Italy bashing, we will only become even more motivated to make you eat your words!

James I Davison
December 03, 2009

J Martelli:

Just to give your comment a little more context, I'd like to point out that you are not referring to something Mara wrote in this blog post. This is actually a response to something Mara was quoted as saying in a magazine article, which can be seen here.


Mara Warwick
December 03, 2009

Dr Martelli,

Thank you for your comments and insights. I encourage you to read again my original blog post which was written while I was in L’Aquila, as I am sure that you will see in my words the admiration that I and my colleagues felt for the work of the Italian Civil Defense and its volunteers in the aftermath of the tragedy in L’Aquila. The Italian Civil Defense has one of the most well-established, organized and efficiently functioning emergency response systems in the world. The World Bank has been collaborating with the Italian Civil Defense for many years to bring Italy’s good practice and experience to other countries. Italy is a generous provider of technical assistance and aid in the field of disaster response, providing not only money and equipment in the immediate aftermath of disasters, but most importantly, know-how and technical skills through long-term collaboration with other countries in the region and the world. In fact, one of the results of the World Bank team’s visit to L’Aquila was the recent signing of a cooperation agreement between the Italian Civil Defense and the World Bank to further strengthen our ability to work together to bring Italy’s good experiences to developing countries:

The Wenchuan and L’Aquila earthquakes were both tragedies that created enormous challenges for the affected communities and governments. The response in both cases has been remarkable, but the circumstances have been very different. The comparisons to which you refer in your letter were made by Italian Civil Defense personnel, not by me. As professionals in this field, and also as participants in the response to both earthquakes (Italian Civil Defense provided assistance to China after the Wenchuan earthquake), they are uniquely qualified to make such comparisons. Their purpose in providing these examples to us was to highlight that local conditions – in particular culture – matter in disaster response. Every country can learn from each other but ultimately it must develop its own system because the challenges each government and community faces in responding to disasters is unique.

Mara Warwick