Over 28,000 Homeless, 270 Dead in Wake of Italy Quake

Relief groups are working furiously to assist some 28,000 people now homeless in central Italy following Monday's magnitude-6.3 quake.

Officials said some 10,000 to 15,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed in the 26 cities, towns and villages around the hard-hit city of L'Aquila, where Italy was hit by the worst quake in three decades.

So far the death toll has reached more than 270, according to police. The toll is expected to rise as rescue teams pull more bodies from the rubble.

"In one tremor, whole streets came down," reported Fr. Vittorio Nozza, director of Caritas Italiana, a member of faith-based aid group Caritas Internationalis.

"Even compared to previous earthquakes in 2002 and 1997, I've never seen such devastation," he added.

To coordinate relief efforts and collect and redistribute food, blankets, hygiene items and clothes, Caritas Italiana has set up a response center in Pettino, a town near L'Aquila. The organization has also erected eight tent camps around the earthquake zone where the displaced are receiving moral and psychological support from both psychologists and Caritas volunteers.

Since the quake early Monday, some 430 aftershocks have rumbled through the region, including some strong ones, according to Marco Olivieri of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology in Rome.

Furthermore, damage was so severe to L'Aquila's churches "that at the moment, none of them can be used" by the faithful, reported the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman, to The Associated Press. Italy's population is predominantly Roman Catholic.

With Easter coming up and many churches reduced to piles of stone, dust and wood, many Catholic churchgoers in central Italy will be gathering wherever they can to celebrate Easter Sunday Mass. In the nearby town of Paganica, Catholics will gather on a sports field, reported Caritas Internationalis.

"Easter Sunday offers a sign of hope and optimism," says Don Dionisio Rodriguez, director of Caritas Aquila and parish priest of Paganica.

"People aren't feeling much joy at the moment, but Easter Sunday provides us with a sign of life and renewal," he said.

Caritas Italiana has appealed for funds to help the relief effort and has set aside 100,000 euro (nearly $133,000) to provide assistance to the people of L'Aquila and the surrounding area.

Its sister organization, Catholic Relief Services, meanwhile, has been receiving donations from concerned Catholics throughout the United States which will be used for earthquake victims through Caritas Italiana.

"CRS continues to pray for the people of L'Aquila and the surrounding areas who have been affected by this tragic event," said CRS President Ken Hackett. "We are one human family, and it is at times like these when we must all come together to support one another."

On Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI said he hoped visit the people of central Italy as soon as possible.

According to the Vatican, the pontiff also praised relief operations as an example of how solidarity can help overcome "even the most painful trials."

The pope is expected to make a trip to the devastated areas sometime after Easter Sunday.