In the now …
The military has arrived in Sarnano. Thank god. Actually, they are Air Force, but who’s counting? A man in a uniform with a side arm … exactly what the town needs.
We have all been hoping they would come, but there were other places they were needed far more – like in Rigopiano, where the avalanche killed so many people. This I am sure will have been on your news channels. They’re here to help clear the roads, rescue people and generally manage the dire situation we are in.
These last days and weeks have been so, so hard. This region is, as is now so often said in the media here, ‘on its knees‘. Individuals, animals, towns and villages are stricken. All over again. Will all this ever end?
In my last blog I left things at the point where the two colossal earthquakes in the evening of October 26th were about to strike … I meant to write about all that, promptly, I really did but …. things happened that made it hard. Before I summarize my list of excuses (a series of slightly more dramatic versions of ‘the dog ate my homework’) I wanted to say that this reluctance I had to start typing was also because it was difficult for me to resurrect the memories of that appalling night. I will do it, though, because I want you to know what it is like – the horror and disbelief that such violent forces of nature bring into your mind and body.
But I’ll do it in the blog that follows this one … I have got my writing mojo back, so I will write. No more long gaps … and please, please keep with this because the more you read, the more likely it is you will tell people and the more likely it will be that this story – this huge story – will get more coverage. I am so sick and tired of hearing people say ‘Oh, blimey … I didn’t realise it was that bad ‘
‘The Dog Ate My Homework’ – and why I didn’t write for so long
Christmas was a blur of sickness. Steve had bronchitis, with the worst coughing that I had ever heard. I got proper ‘flu – the kind where you cannot move and the joints in your toes hurt. I barely moved from the sofa/bed for about ten days. The only time I did move was to go to the vet god knows how many times: my hound, Tinker, had eaten some poisoned meat (left out by morons who periodically try and kill the feral cats that are everywhere here) and came perilously close to dying. It paralyzed her gut, got into her brain (gave her hallucinations: she thought chairs were food and tried to eat them) and stopped her legs from working properly, so she walked like she was drunk. She was in terrible pain, but I got her to the vet in time and she stayed on a 24-hour drip for five days. Then the veins in her skinny legs gave out so instead they had to pump her full of the fluid under her skin so she looked like a little black camel with this huge lump that would eventually dissipate during the day.
Also, it turns out that the pain I have had in my foot, since I smashed it on the steps when I was flung to the floor on the night of October 26th’s violent earthquake (see next blog) is because it is broken. Well, not exactly broken but I have a hairline fracture. And it hurts. The doctor said I should have come within 21 days because the break has now sort of ‘set’. Not to worry, he said … it can be re-broken and then re-set properly. Did I want to make an appointment? WHAT? Which bit of ‘we are living through a swarm of earthquakes and running on two good legs is hard enough but on crutches it’d be impossible‘ have you failed to notice? Really? I declined the offer.
That was Christmas. This room looked like something out of a Solzhenitsyn novel … two people moaning and groaning with cold and illness, a dog that needed endless medication, snow creeping ever higher up the house and a sense of doom and gray everywhere. Then Nelson, my exquisite feral pet cat (one of five I’ve rescued over the years … and I don’t especially like cats) was beaten up for the third time by some Tom cat in Sarnano. Nelson is a card carrying pacifist and if he had two legs, instead of four, he would be called a ‘sensitive bachelor’ (he’s interested in upholstery and very fond of mauve). So I had to bring him here to keep him safe.
Then, although I was still unwell, Steve and I decided he should go back to Al Jazeera, in Doha, as the need for more income had in no way diminished. We had had another large quake around lunchtime on New Year’s Day that had done yet further damage to our house in town. We could see a huge, new crack – the bricks had shifted visibly – zig-zagging its way up the outside. So, off he went. I was just going to carry on and try and get out in front of all the things I’d not been dealing with for the previous weeks.
If this had all been happening back in the 16th century I might well have been burned at the stake. Mad woman who limps, talks to herself, has a weird cat and huddles around a fire ….
Back to the now
About the time I was getting better the snow started coming. Beautiful, at first,
all ‘picture-postcardy’ but it was to become a nightmare, a killer.
Then I woke up one morning, maybe a week ago (time just blurs for me, now) to this …
The days that followed became very hard. Snow would not stop falling. On cedars or anything else. We had been warned that these extraordinary arctic conditions were coming so I had got food, candles and so on in … but absolutely all of us were caught off guard by the relentless falling of this white stuff that you are supposed to be thrilled to see.
When I was living in Sarnano it wasn’t such a huge problem: you put on your ski clothes and gingerly walked down the little roads into town to have a coffee in the square, buy groceries and see friends. The Comune were always prepared and the snow-plows took care of the main road in and out of town and they used sort of mini-blower things to blast the snow out of alleys and streets like mine. All rather fun, adventurous even.
Now it was a totally different story.
I’m not in town. I live in a ground floor apartment (like I said before, I only occupy the living room) which has a long drive that leads to a side road, which in turn leads to the main road which heads, eventually, into Sarnano. Picturesque and glorious in the summer. A nightmare in the winter.
The day after I took the photo of the cortile, I woke up and saw that the snow was now three-quarters of the way up the side of the apartment. I was speechless. I got togged up and went outside to try and assess the situation. I pushed and waded through the cortile for about four feet and then had to stop. I took this picture. I turned around and went back inside. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was trapped. Completely.
The heavy snow brought down trees which then brought down pylons. I had no electricity, and the gas – stored in some sort of giant container under the ground here – was (and still is) about to run out and the company wouldn’t deliver new supplies as the weather was so dodgy.
We had all been told that the serious snow, the threatening snow would start on Sunday 15th January – as indeed it did. I heeded the ‘severe weather’ warnings, to which end I phoned Franco to ask for more wood for the stufa. (I wanted to put an expletive before the word ‘stufa‘ but I am not yet sure of blogging etiquette).
Franco is our local policeman, our ‘shepherd’, a handsome silver fox of a man with a vast heart who smokes probably as much as I do. On Saturday 14th, in the afternoon, I went to meet him at his woodpile, on the edge of town, and he started loading up a ton of logs into his car, to last me for for at least the next four days. By then, we thought, the worst would be over and I’d be able to order some from a wood merchant and get a load delivered.
Franco was the last person I would see for the next four and half days. By Tuesday morning there was absolutely no way to get out of the house. I was calm enough but just could not see what to do. I thought if I was careful with the wood, even more careful with the candles (still no power) and rationed my cigarettes I could sit it out.
When I decided to do this blog, Steve made me join Facebook. Just before he went away this time, he bought me a smartphone. I wasn’t impressed. People spend too much time living vicariously, doing whatever it is they do on smartphones, to make their lives seem somehow better. I’ve had a crappy little €19 clam phone for forever and wanted for nothing more.
Well, snowed in and no power, no internet, no water and diminishing wood, I ate my words and chewed them thoroughly. All praise to the smartphone, I say. Steve had also had the foresight to put on it, that thing called data which means I can contact the outside world even with no internet access. I thought the wheel, the biro and non-stick pans were the acme of human endeavour. I was so wrong. It is the smartphone.
I started feeling better, physically,and I can remember drinking a rather inelegant amount of wine (actually, it’s never elegant, is it, when you do it on your own?) on the Tuesday evening, pleased with myself that I was managing so well. Candlelight, the fire and celestial thoughts.
I woke up with a headache. It was arctic in this room. All the walls here are exterior walls and there are two sets of french windows, which are of course totally useless at helping to preserve heat. It’s a summer rental place not meant for habitation in tundra conditions.
I had tried to warm up some clothes on the stufa before taking off what I had on (still slept dressed, more or less) but that hateful, hateful contraption got the better of me. Again.
I have melted several items of outdoor clothing, in precisely this manner.
I was worried about the wood supply by now, as it was plain I could neither get out nor could anyone ever reach me. The distance from the cortile to the end of the drive is probably 60 meters but it might as well have been 60 miles. The snow had reached about 4′ above the car and I couldn’t take a single step without my entire leg sinking into snow without a trace. The first time I did that I had to pull my own leg out of the snow with both arms, accepting the fact that its boot had disappeared into glacial space, never to be seen again. Limped back with one bare foot.
There was tremendous snow falling, icy mist and I couldn’t see Sarnano through it all. I had water at this point so made the usual pot of strong coffee. I think I said I was getting a bit overly tidy, and I swept up wood chips, ash and dog biscuit crumbs from the floor. I was getting worried that I was turning into a modern version of Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, from Under Milkwood. I recall her as a loveless, joyless woman who I think “… always made the sun wipe its feet before it came in” [Please, no-one write and tell me I got the quote wrong]. Anyway, my headache was receding and all seemed possible. I clearly remember thinking that I must, absolutely must, do my tax returns the moment the electricity came back on.
At 9.25 the world exploded.
A very powerful earthquake smashed into the house. Later, I learned it was a magnitude 5.1. I knew exactly what it was – I lived through the night of October 26th and every atom in my body now responded, as one, with the impulse to run. Just run. No screaming or carrying on. Just run.
But I couldn’t run. I couldn’t even walk. All that snow might as well as have been a wall of fire. I couldn’t get further than a few feet and then I collapsed in the snow. I remember this quite clearly – I said, quietly to myself “I don’t want to die like this“.
And then there was silence. I crawled through the snow. I couldn’t stand up as I had no purchase and nothing to grab hold of, to haul myself up. I got back inside and phoned Steve. He already knew what had happened because he, like everyone else who lived through August 24th, October 26th and 30th, checks the INVG site several times a day … (use this link to verify what I’m telling you… http://bit.ly/2k91Z4d). He told me to do the best I could to escape, just to keep moving however slowly, away from the house, the building. As we were talking there was another big tremor and I hung up and started to try and flee. It took me the best part of half an hour to get to the bottom of the drive. I was soaking wet, shaking and stunned. I collapsed on the ground, not feeling any of the cold. That whole ghastly clawing and scrabbling through that bottomless snow had exhausted me.
During the time I was inching my way down the drive towards the little side road and for the ten minutes I sat, slumped in the white treacle that seemed to consume me, there were 25 more earthquakes bigger than a 2.0. The ground did not stop moving.
Then, suddenly at 10.15 there was another huge rocking 5.5, followed by five more (two of them, a 4.7 and a 4.6 within two minutes).
I managed to grab some wet, dangling, spindly branches of a tree that had been forced to bend towards the ground by the weight of the snow. At the moment I was struggling to get upright, by pulling against these branches – which I now know was at exactly 10.24 am – there were two more big quakes, one right after the other – a 4.0 and a 5.4. I knew I had not got far enough away from the building for it not to fall on me, but I just gave up. I could not move. The impact had sent all the snow trapped within the trees above me, hurtling down on my head. I fell, again, into the snow. I lay there, motionless, no idea what was happening, what to do or how it would all end.
The quarter of an hour after that there were six more, the biggest being a 4.1. There were then a load more and at 11.07 am another 4.1. I could not believe the house was still standing.
By now I could no longer count. I no longer cared. I could hear avalanches thundering away in the background – we are so close to the mountains here – and I had no idea at all what towns and villages had been affected. I was so afraid for my town and my home, and powerless in equal measure.
Then in a sort of calm, peaceful madness I began to dig. And I didn’t stop for the next two hours.
I had no gloves. I scratched and gouged as much snow as I could, trying to make a path back to the house. It was totally illogical, what I was doing but I never stopped scraping with my bare hands until Steve managed to get through on my (smart) phone. I told him what I was doing and he gently told me to crawl back to the house and start the whole process of making an ‘escape route’ again, but from the cortile outwards, away from the building, not to towards it. It was after 1pm now and once I had stopped my hands began to burn with the cold, my nails were ripped and I was soaked up to my waist, hair hanging in an icy tangle. I had taken off my jacket and my scarf and the top sweater, as I felt so terribly hot. I didn’t realise it but I was getting hypothermic.
I did crawl back and I did start again.
My progress was pitiful. It seemed to take forever to dig a little, force the snow to the side, then try and tamp down, to compact the snow beneath me. That snow beneath me was about 6′ or 7′ deep. I remember crawling near the car and thinking I had hit ‘ground’. It wasn’t ground. It was the roof of our Fiat Panda.
No sooner had I reached the area in front of the cortlile than the earth began to shake violently all over again. I kept saying, ‘Please, no. Please, no’. There was a powerful magnitude 5.0 at 1.30 pm and I all but gave up entirely. I thought this was the end of the world.
All that happened on January 18th.
During that day we had 339 earthquakes over a magnitude 2.0 and 62 earthquakes over a magnitude 3.0. You probably can’t remember what you were doing on that day. I can’t forget what I was doing. Even writing about it is difficult.
I could take no photographs that day or the day after because I remained trapped. I had no idea at the time what had happened in my area. I could take no photographs, because I couldn’t get out until later. So, I am going to cheat – and reproduce images from one of our local newspapers, Il Resto Del Carlino. Taken with the smartphone, in poor light they look a bit rough but they are a start, for you to see what has happened here.
January 18th was a terrible, terrible day.
We were all just beginning to come to terms with the carnage of October’s earthquakes, barely coping with the insane amount of snow when nature came and shook us near enough to death. Now we are all very afraid. Immensely anxious, all the time.
I’ve written a lot and you’ve read a lot. I’ll stop and get on with the next Chapter in the next day or two.
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