A powerful earthquake struck Italy on Sunday in the same central regions that have been rocked by repeated tremors over the past two months, with more homes and churches brought down but no deaths reported.
The quake, which measured 6.6 according to the U.S. Geological Survey, was bigger than one on Aug. 24 that killed almost 300 people. Many people have fled the area since then, helping to avoid a new devastating death toll.
With thousands already made homeless, a leading seismologist warned that the earthquakes could go on for weeks in a domino effect along the central Apennine fault system.
The latest quake was felt across much of Italy, striking at 7.40 a.m., its epicenter close to the historic Umbrian walled town of Norcia, some 100 km (60 miles) from the university city of Perugia.
Panicked Norcia residents rushed into the streets and the town’s ancient Basilica of St. Benedict collapsed, leaving just the facade standing. Nuns, monks and locals sank to their knees in the main square in silent prayer before the shattered church.
“This is a tragedy. It is a coup de grace. The basilica is devastated,” Bishop Renato Boccardo of Norcia told Reuters.
“Everyone has been suspended in a never-ending state of fear and stress. They are at their wits’ end,” said Boccardo, referring to the thousands of tremors that have rattled the area since August, including two serious quakes on Wednesday.
Italy’s Civil Protection unit, which coordinates disaster relief, said numerous houses were destroyed on Sunday in the regions of Umbria and Marche, but either they were deserted at the time or most of the residents managed to escape in time.
Civil Protection chief Fabrizio Curcio said no deaths had been reported and around 20 people were injured, none of them critically. He said it was too early to say how many more people had lost their homes.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi promised a massive reconstruction effort regardless of cost and took advantage of the disaster to resume his frequent criticism of the European Union’s public finance rules.
“We will rebuild everything, the houses, the churches and the businesses,” he told reporters. “Everything that needs to be done to rebuild these areas will be done.”
He said he would have “no regard for technocratic rules” and would consider all money spent to make Italy’s schools and hospitals earthquake-proof to be outside EU limits on budget deficits.
Local authorities said towns and villages already battered by August’s 6.2 quake had suffered further significant damage.
“This morning’s quake has hit the few things that were left standing. We will have to start from scratch,” Michele Franchi, the deputy mayor of Arquata del Tronto, told Rai television.
Experts said Sunday’s quake was the strongest here since a 6.9 quake in Italy’s south in 1980 that killed 2,735 people .