In the 12th-century town of Accumoli, as many as 70 per cent of the homes were vacant in the off-season. There were fewer people on the streets. Numerous teenagers had left for good. And that was before the earthquake.

As the search continued in the hard debris and as hopes dimmed that rescuers would find more survivors, cities and towns hard hit by central Italy's devastating temblor began to process the full extent of the disaster.

Churches fell. Piazzas were ruined. Neighbourhoods were levelled. The body count was at least 250 and set to grow.

But in many hard-hit central Italian towns already fighting a long battle against depopulation, a deeper anxiety began to spread. Would the people ever come back?


Aftershocks - some strong enough to send already-damaged structures tumbling down - continued to belt the region yesterday. But for many, that was not what had them spooked the most. In some cases, these were towns already on the edge - places where sons and daughters had so little economic opportunity that many simply left. In quake-battered Accumoli, for instance, youth unemployment was already 30 per cent in a town where 80 per cent of the population was over 65.

In the aftermath of such destruction, some locals feared towns like this one might take years, maybe decades, to bounce back from the weight of Wednesday's 6.2-magnitude earthquake.

In the temporary tent city set up for Accumoli's newly homeless, Lucia Di Gianvito, a 57-year-old house cleaner, said she had had no word from the elderly woman who once employed her.

"She is probably dead," Di Gianvito said. "Everything is going to be over now. No jobs. No shops left. It's over."

A woman nearby chimed in, saying that surely the town would rebuild. Di Gianvito just laughed.

"The situation wasn't good even before," she said, adding that only one of her two adult sons had managed to find work. "There were no jobs. The young people are leaving. Should we leave, too? Maybe. But where will we go? There is no hope."

Rescuers search a crumbled building in Arcuata del Tronto, central Italy. Photo / AP
Rescuers search a crumbled building in Arcuata del Tronto, central Italy. Photo / AP

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has pledged a series of measures to aid and rebuild hard-hit towns, including tax relief and a 50 million ($77.2m) package that he suggested was just a start.

"We have a moral commitment to the women and men of those communities," Renzi said. "The reconstruction of those towns is a priority of the Government and country."

But as often happens in Italy after major quakes, the recriminations were already flying. Italy is the most earthquake-prone nation in Western Europe - as well as a nation stocked with ancient buildings and archaeological treasures whose care scholars see as paramount to preserving human history.

Yet vast numbers of older structures do not conform to anti-earthquake building codes adopted in the 1980s - and even many new buildings do no comply, experts say.

Alessandro Amati, a seismologist at Italy's National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology, estimated that 70 to 80 per cent of buildings in Italy are not earthquake proof. In Wednesday's quake, 293 cultural heritage assets in Italy were damaged - including several that totally collapsed.

When reinforcements are done, they can be shoddy, and it is not unusual for criminal charges to be brought against architects and construction companies when allegedly safe buildings fail during quakes.

On Thursday, the Italian press reported that prosecutors were investigating how and why a school restored four years ago using government anti-earthquake funds managed to collapse.

But there is also evidence that such efforts can work: After earthquakes in 1979 and 1997, buildings in the city of Norcia, near Wednesday's epicentre, underwent substantial reinforcements. This week, those were credited with protecting the city, which sustained only limited damage.

More of that could have saved lives, many here argued. But "there are enormous deficits when it comes to seismic safety in Italy", Amati said.

What might worry residents in hard-hit towns like Accumoli more is the track record for rebuilding. In 2009, a 6.3-magnitude quake struck L'Aquila, 116km east of Rome, causing widespread damage that claimed more than 300 lives. Seven years later, new housing structures have gone up on its edges, but the historic centre remains largely a ghost town. A more complete restoration is not expected until at least 2021.

By comparison, the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, killed 4600 city residents and led to the full or partial collapse of more than 100,000 structures. The city suffered lasting impacts, but a massive reconstruction effort led to an 80 per cent economic recovery in under five years.

On Thursday, Renzi also insisted that he was prepared to make a serious investment in fortifying buildings and taking other steps to prevent further damage from natural disasters.

"I do not want to repeat the mistakes of L'Aquila," he said.

In Accumoli, which suffered widespread damage, the fight now is to hold on to a future. The population had already fallen from 758 in 1991 to 667 last year. With fewer children, a middle school has closed. Some residents say economic opportunity has been hard to find - and would be harder now.

Giuseppina Chiaro, a 51-year-old housewife, said her 24-year old son had left the town to find work. Now she feared that her 21-year-old daughter, who worked at a local bar, might also need to leave.

"Right now, all I can see is darkness," she said. "We have no money, where should we stay? Who will give us the money we need to go away? And with a 60-year-old husband? I'm over 50. I'm the kind of woman who rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. But get to work on what?"

Mayor Stefano Petrucci, however, said the town had improved its economic prospects in recent years. Although 70 per cent of the homes were vacant most of the year, many of them filled up in August with temporary residents and vacationers escaping big cities.

On Wednesday, the earthquake caused damage even to town's most prized structures: a 12th-century civil tower and a 15th-century palazzo. But Petrucci insisted on that Italian politicians would move swiftly to rebuild - at least they would if they wanted "to look good". "We'll become an example of how to rebuild a city centre," he vowed. "We'll come out of this with our heads held high."

Yet even in their sorrow, many residents said they are ready to fight for the town's survival. Francesco Nigro, the local pharmacist, said he has already worked out a deal to open a temporary pharmacy in a shipping container because of a sense of community that he refuses to let go of. As he spoke near the light-blue tent city for homeless residents, an elderly woman in pain came up to him and asked for an analgesic cream.

He gladly supplied one.

"We care about each other here and we're not going to give that up," he said. "It's going to take time and patience. But this town is not going to be defeated."