Italy's strongest earthquake in decades rocked central parts of the country early Sunday, according to the United States Geological Survey.

The magnitude-6.6 quake shook buildings and sent people rushing out to the streets at 7:40 a.m. local time (2:40 a.m. ET). It took place in the same area that was hit by temblors last week and that was also devastated by a quake two months ago.

While there were no immediate reports of deaths or major injuries, the earthquake was far more powerful than the 6.2 quake that struck Italy in August, killing nearly 300 people and destroying historic towns. Unconfirmed reports in Italian media said that at least nine people have been pulled alive from the rubble.

The quake's epicenter was about 40 miles southeast of Perugia near the small town of Norcia, where buildings were damaged and emergency workers were continuing to check for casualties. However, the USGS said Sunday's quake was registered at a depth of less than a mile — a distance that is considered to be extremely shallow and might mean that the destruction could be relatively limited.

"We are trying to understand if people are under the rubble," said Cesare Spuri, the regional head of Italy's civil protection authority.

Marco Rinaldi, the mayor of the nearby village of Ussita, nevertheless said there was severe destruction in his area. "Everything collapsed. I can see columns of smoke, it's a disaster, a disaster," he told Italy's ANSA news agency.

"I was sleeping in my car, I saw hell break out," Rinaldi said.

An international community of Monks in Norcia, an ancient town about 100 miles northeast of Rome and known for its Benedictine monastery, tweeted an image of the 14th century St. Benedict cathedral with only its facade standing.

Extremely strong tremors were felt as far away as Rome and Italy's civil protection department said it was checking all the towns affected by the quake. Italy's Red Cross said that its emergency centers were activated across the country.

The latest quake came after temblors in Italy last week left thousands homeless. The last time Italy experienced an earthquake as strong as Sunday's was in 1980, when a magnitude-6.9 quake left more than 2,400 dead and injured 7,700. Tens of thousands of people lost their homes in that disaster.