Italian American Responses to the 1980 Irpinia Earthquake

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My mother was pregnant with me on November 23, 1980. By this time, my Nonno Joe had been dead for seven, going on eight, years. She remembers hearing the news that an earthquake hit Italy, but did not put two and two together that the quake had hit her father’s home region.

The 1980 Irpinia Earthquake happened at 7:34 PM local time in Italy. The quake had a 6.9 magnitude from its initial jolt and was followed by at least 90 aftershocks. The epicenter of the quake was Conza della Campania and it left at least 2,483 people dead, at least 7,700 injured, and 250,000 homeless.

Other towns also felt the affects of the quake, including Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi, where 300 people died, including 27 children in an orphanage. In Balvano, 100 people lost their lives when a medieval church collapsed during Sunday services and, besides Conza della Campania, the towns of Lioni and Teora were totally destroyed. Damage was so widespread, it was seen in both Naples and Salerno.

The United States contributed more than $70 million to relief and reconstruction efforts in Irpinia. I studied the 1980 Irpinia Earthquake in depth while I was researching my 2003 Bachelor of Arts thesis at the University of Scranton, which centered on the modernization of Irpinia as seen in literature published after the 1980 earthquake. While performing my research, I found articles from both the New York Times and the Scranton Times-Tribune that highlighted the Italian American response to the quake.

A December 5, 1980 article in the New York Times reported that then-Lieutenant Governor of New York, Mario M. Cuomo, created an organization called IDEA, an acronym for Italian Disaster Emergency Assistance, which served as a clearinghouse for information on the types of aid needed in Italy. It did not seek donations in its own name, but attempted to prevent the wasteful duplication of relief efforts and focused on ensuring the right kind of aid where it was most needed.

Cuomo’s parents were from Nocera Inferiore and Tiamonte, two towns that were strongly hit by the 1980 quake. He was quoted as saying,

“[IDEA] will provide an intelligent coordination of the efforts of organizations here and of those who are in Italy. Attempts will be made to put things directly into the hands of people who need them. We have heard stories of ripoffs at the other end and of too many items being sent that could not be used.”

In Scranton, Pennsylvania, which has a very high percentage of people of Irpinian origin to this day, grassroots efforts abounded. In a December 2, 1980 article in the Scranton Times, the late Joseph X. Flannery reported that the Catholic churches of the Diocese of Scranton collected thousands of dollars for quake victims, while the City of Scranton, Lackawanna County, and the Victor Alfieri Club joined forces to establish an Italian Earthquake Fund. People wishing to contribute were invited to bring donations to Scranton City Hall or to call the Mayor’s Action Line for assistance.

Later that week, on December 5, 1980, the Times reported that a special meeting was held in Scranton’s City Hall for a more cohesive effort to provide relief.  The meeting was called by former Mayor of Scranton Eugene Hickey. Organizations in attendance included the region’s main Italian-American organizations, as well as the Diocese of Scranton, the American Red Cross, and the Scranton-Lackawanna Jewish Council. The result of this drive was the creation of the Mayor’s Emergency Italian Earthquake Fund, which was headed by Monsignor Constantine V. Siconolfi, whose origins are from Guardia dei Lombardi.

Mayor Hickey was quoted as saying,

“This drive will be different. Not that of government to government, but people to people.”

And it truly was people to people as the Scranton Times reported that while the majority of volunteers were of Italian American origin, there were also Irish, Jewish, Polish and many other ethnic and religious groups represented.

When my mother and I visited Guardia dei Lombardi, we were struck by two plaques in Santa Maria delle Grazie Church that recognized the North American Guardiese community for its help following the 1980 earthquake. The church, known as the “mother church” of Guardia, was heavily damaged, especially its bell tower. In Scranton and neighboring Dunmore, people of Guardiese origin literally went door to door soliciting funds throughout the various Guardiese neighborhoods to try to help the church rebuild. At left are the two commemorative plaques recognizing this effort, which can be seen in the back of Santa Maria delle Grazie to this day.

The 1980 Irpinia Earthquake remains etched in the region’s collective memory as a line of demarcation– there is a “before” and there is an “after.” While the region can never go back to before, its “after” is full of life and a spirit of recognition that Irpinia, much like the phoenix, will continue to rise from its ashes to a greater splendor.



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