ACCUMOLI (Italy) • In this 12th century town, as many as 70 per cent of the homes are vacant in the off season. There are fewer people on the streets. Most of the teenagers have left for good.
And that was before the earthquake struck.
As the search continued 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 were reduced to rubble. Piazzas were ruined. Neighbourhoods were levelled.
The death toll rose to 268 yesterday, with nearly 400 people being treated for injuries in hospitals.
Aftershocks - some strong enough to send already damaged structures tumbling down - continued to ripple through the regions of Lazio, Marche and Umbria.
Yesterday, more than 2,000 people who spent the night in hastily erected tented villages were shaken by a 4.8-magnitude aftershock just after 6am.
Italy is the most earthquake-prone nation in Western Europe. Yet, vast numbers of older structures do not conform to anti-quake building codes adopted in the 1980s and even many new buildings do not comply, experts said.
But in many of the hard-hit towns already fighting a long battle against depopulation, a deeper anxiety began to spread. Would the people ever come back?
Some were already on the edge - places where sons and daughters had so little economic opportunity that many simply left.
For instance, in quake-battered Accumoli - located about 110km north-east of Rome - 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 Wednesday's 6.2-magnitude earthquake.
In the temporary tent city set up for Accumoli's newly homeless people, 57-year-old house cleaner Lucia Di Gianvito said she has not heard from the elderly woman who once employed her, and that she fears she and many others would not be able to find a job.
"Should we leave, too? Maybe. But where will we go? There is no hope," she said.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has declared a state of emergency in the region and pledged a series of measures to help hard-hit towns, including tax relief and a €50 million (S$76 million) aid package that he suggested was just a start.
"The reconstruction of those towns is a priority of the government and country," Mr Renzi said.
But as it often happens in Italy after major quakes, the recriminations were already flying. Italy is the most earthquake-prone nation in Western Europe. Yet, vast numbers of older structures do not conform to anti-quake building codes adopted in the 1980s and even many new buildings do not comply, experts said.
In Wednesday's quake, 293 cultural heritage assets in Italy were damaged - including several that totally collapsed.
What might worry residents more in towns like Accumoli is the track record for rebuilding.
In 2009, a 6.3-magnitude quake struck L'Aquila, 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.
But Accumoli mayor Stefano Petrucci said he was confident that Italian politicians would move swiftly to rebuild here. "We'll become an example of how to rebuild a city centre," he said. "We'll come out of this with our heads held high."
Italy will mark a day of mourning today for the victims.
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE