Italy prepared on Wednesday to begin burying some of the 260 people killed in medieval towns flattened by a quake, while rescuers hampered by aftershocks hunted for people who may be buried alive in rubble.
A mass state funeral for the victims and a national day of mourning are expected to be held on Friday, although the first two private services were due on Wednesday. Pope Benedict prayed for the victims and said he would visit the area soon.
The death toll climbed to 260 after rescuers pulled more bodies from the rubble and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in total 28,000 had lost their homes, with 17,000 now living in tents and the rest in free hotel rooms or staying with family.
Aftershocks from Italy’s worst quake in three decades lasted until Wednesday in mountainous Abruzzo and were felt in Rome.
The strongest 5.6 magnitude shock late on Tuesday toppled parts of the basilica and station in the city of L’Aquila, which bore the brunt of the disaster, and claimed one more victim.
“We’re in shock because we have lost our loved ones, the town has been reduced to rubble with over 40 dead and lots of them were young, a whole generation cancelled out,” said Antonella Massi in Onna, a village that once had 300 residents and was left with hardly a building untouched by the quake.
Berlusconi, who has declared an emergency and sent in thousands of troops, drafted a tough new law against looting.
“Whoever is low enough to try to take advantage of a tragedy like this shows a total lack of morals and will be very severely punished,” said Berlusconi, visiting L’Aquila for the third consecutive day to direct the emergency response.
Asking countries wishing to send aid to restore one of the region’s ruined medieval churches instead, Berlusconi’s hands-on approach could boost his high popularity rating, pollsters say.
The gaffe-prone premier risked appearing insensitive when he told one German television channel that the thousands of people living in tents “should look on it as a camping weekend”.
But he also said he had now gone 44 hours without sleeping, the 72-year-old prime minister joked to a reporter that this was “not bad for a 35-year-old”.
One estimate done for insurers put the damage to Italy’s economy, which is already reeling from the worst recession since World War Two, at between 2 billion and 3 billion euros (between $1.5 billion and $2.2 billion), in the context of overall economic output for Italy of about 1.5 trillion euros.
Officials say the quake will have a huge impact in a region which mostly lives off tourism, farming and family businesses.
Berlusconi vowed to build a whole new town near L’Aquila and Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia, visiting Onna, urged Italians to help the region’s economy “by thinking of them when the holiday season begins and principally buying products from Abruzzo”.
The survivors face a grim Easter weekend. With many local churches badly damaged, people prepared to celebrate the feast in makeshift chapels in the tent villages.
The government and hotel owners offered free shelter for the homeless in hotels on the Adriatic coast.
“Go to the coast. It’s Easter, take a break and we will pay for it,” Berlusconi told victims at a tent camp on Tuesday.
At least 250 bodies were being stored in a makeshift mortuary outside L’Aquila.
On Tuesday night rescuers burst into applause when a 20-year-old woman was found alive 42 hours after the quake in the ruins of a four-storey building.
Many of the victims were students at L’Aquila’s university, such as 24-year-old student and soccer player Giuseppe Chiavaroli, due to be buried on Wednesday in his hometown.
One fire-fighter from the port of Pescara who came to help rescue efforts collapsed in tears after unearthing the body of his stepdaughter, who was studying there.
Italian soccer teams said revenue from this weekend’s matches would be sent to help victims. Universities, papers and TV channels took collections, while hotels provided thousands of cheap rooms for survivors and rescuers.
Some residents and experts said they were angry that even supposedly earthquake-proof modern buildings had collapsed.
“In California, an earthquake like this one would not have killed a single person,” said Franco Barberi, head of a committee assessing quake risks at the Civil Protection Agency.