Residents of quake-hit Albanian city fearful of returning to unsafe homes

(This December 2 story corrects spelling of Albanian in the headline.)

A member of National Territory Protection Inspectorate walks near a damaged building in Durres, after an earthquake shook Albania, December 2, 2019. REUTERS/Florion Goga

DURRES, Albania (Reuters) - Residents of damaged buildings in Albania’s second-biggest city of Durres are reluctant to return to their apartments until the government can tell them they are safe following last week’s deadly earthquake.

In one apartment block, a Reuters team walked up a staircase clogged with bricks and plaster debris and saw walls that had been torn open or collapsed, revealing bathrooms and kitchens.

Bricks littered beds and one living-room was now open to the street.

A total of 51 people were killed in the quake that struck last Tuesday. After finding shelter for more than 6,300 homeless people in hotels, gyms, tents and social centers, the government now faces the task of assessing the safety of buildings and rebuilding homes.

Some 70 experts, 50 of them foreign, are working to assess the damage.

Living in relatives’ houses and even cars, residents keep returning to their apartments to protect them from thieves or to cart away possessions as hundreds of aftershocks add to their fears and strain the buildings.

Robert Bushi, 61, said he had dragged his 20-year-old daughter Klea from her bed on which broken bricks had fallen, wounding her on the forehead.

His living room wall had fallen out. The 10-storey building was close to two hotels that collapsed and were being demolished on the Durres beach area.

“On TV they make it look like everything is taken care of but it is six days now were are out in the street and no one came to tell us if the building is safe,” he told Reuters.

The 6.4-magnitude quake, Albania’s worst ever, was centered 30 km west of the capital Tirana and was felt across the Balkans and southern Italy across the Adriatic Sea.

Alabania’s last big quake, which killed 40 people, was in 1979 so people were ill-equipped to deal with it.

Some 3,822 dwellings and 461 apartment buildings had been heavily damaged, with 20 declared non-habitable.

Building structures with more storeys than licensed have long been as issue and the government has started to address it. People say that standards have not been rigorously applied during a building boom as people moved from rural areas into the cities, especially Tirana and Durres, in the past two decades.

Prime Minister Edi Rama, touring Durres, promised citizens that each apartment building would be checked for safety.

Hysni Ramollari, 70, who had gone to an apartment to switch off the water supply, said the door shut after the quake and he was rescued by a construction team.

“It was an act of God but right now it is on the government if they do not come and tell us if this building is safe,” he said.

Like others, he had spent his savings to buy the place.

Naim Kolaveri, 60, said a smaller quake three hours after the main had damaged the 10-storey building and he feared another big one would doom it.

“The big quake kicked me around like a soccer ball,” he told Reuters as he and his wife moved away a TV set and a heater.

“It feels as if the quake is in our blood now,” said Bledi, 25, a barkeeper. “I feel I shake whenever I move around.”

Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Angus MacSwan