ROME - In recent weeks many Italians fear that a major earthquake will hit the capital of Rome on May 11. Social networks and forums are contributing to spread a collective psychosis.
Those rumors had forced many families to prepare trips to the lakes and mountains for the day. A lot of mothers will not even be sending their kids to school.
But the terror is irrational, nourished by a mouth-to-mouth rumor based on the misreading of several earthquake predictions made by an Italian amateur seismologist back in the 1920's.
Raffaele Bendandi (1893-1979) spent his entire lifetime studying earthquakes and trying to predict them.
Before dying he left a notebook full of precise dates but with no geographic indications of where such calamities would strike. His theory was based on the belief that the moon and planets have an influx not only on sea tides but also on the earth crust movements.
Some of the disasters anticipated by Bendandi actually occurred, but not all.
In his papers he foresaw an earthquake on January 2, 1924 which really rocked the Italian region of Marche and another on May 6, 1976 that killed over 1000 people in northern Italy.
But above all, people's terror is mainly linked to the fact that Bendandi predicted the exact date (but not location) of this year's March 11 quake that devastated Japan and the one on March 24 that hit Myanmar.
He also wrote that a terrible earthquake would occur in April 2011 and in May 2011 either on the 13, 14, 16, 27 and 30. He never mentioned May 11, nor the location of Rome.
So why so much fuss? According to local commentators, Italian popular paranoia, as all around the globe, has stuck to the date 11 as an ill-omen number. The September 11 Twin Towers attack in 2001, the March 11 Madrid bombings in 2004, Japan's quake on March 11, 2011. Yet 11 is the only number that never appears in Bendandi 's forecasts with regard to this month.
Paola Lagorio, president of the Faenza observatory where Bendandi worked, has tried to dissipate the phantom of an apocalypse destroying Italy's capital, but in vain.
In recent weeks she repeatedly stressed that the seismologist never gave precise locations and that the May 11, 2011 date is pure science-fiction.
But frightened families keep on calling the observatory, asking for advice on what to do.
Even the government's civil protection unit, responsible for tackling all natural calamities hitting Italy, was recently forced to issue and post on its website a detailed report ruling out the possibility that such a nightmare-like buzz could turn into a reality.
Local earthquake experts have also attempted to reassure people. According to world-famous architect Massimiliano Fuksas were a quake effectively to rock Rome it would cause no damage at all because the city is entirely built upon empty, underground caves that tend to absorb shock waves.
Yet it's too late to comfort Romans, who are very superstitious and don't agree on the fact that they are probably making too much ado over nothing.
Even if May 11 will be a normal working day, many citizens will be taking a holiday just to move out of the capital and avoid staying at home. Picnics, a walk in the woods, outdoor barbecues, sleeping in the camper: anything will be better than staying in Rome.
Hotels in the northern Alps of Cortina are already fully booked while the most lucky ones will be going abroad, either in France or Spain. Even several restaurants and bars will close for the day.
"I've already planned to take the day off and go to the lakeside. It might just be paranoia but after what happened in Japan you never know. Better not risk. Plus, considering I live in the historical center I would surely be among the first victims," stressed Giulia Spinosa, 45, a lawyer.
Eleonora Bianchi works as a nurse at a hospital outside the city walls in the countryside, but trouble is she lives in the center. Therefore to avoid panic, with her three female colleagues she's already booked a room at a bed&breakfast close to the clinic.
"This will allow me to stay the night out, avoid morning traffic and get to work in 5 minutes. I have no kids nor husband, no one else to worry about but myself. Even if the earthquake story is just a scam, somehow I believe in it."
It's not just a matter of being superstitious, observed Paolo Corrado, a 67-year-old pensioner. "Why risk dying in an earthquake when you are given a useful bit of information which may even be nonsense but has some truth in it? Given that I don't' believe in fatalism this is what I'll do: l'll make my grandchildren skip school and take them to the mountains. Better avoid the beach, in case a tsunami strikes."
In the meantime families who cannot afford to abandon the capital are gathering food, snacks and water supplies just in case the earthquake does strike and they are forced inside their homes for a prolonged period.
"Prevention and caution are never too much when it comes down to spooky rumors concerning predictions on natural calamities," noted Flaminia Del Monte, a 30-year-old housekeeper. "I know it might seem crazy, for sure nothing will happen on May 11 but you never know. Better to be prepared. This is why I'm buying loads of crackers and tuna fish cans."
Older people are more fatalistic and less worried. "There's no point in escaping. I think this story is hot air. When your time comes to die, you cannot avoid it," said 85-year-old Francesca Renzi, a grandmother of 6 nephews.
There might be one positive aspect. Rome will eventually turn out to be a ghost city on May 11: no traffic, loads of free parking places and just tourists roaming the streets wondering where everybody is.