People are not to blame for earthquakes
The devastation of the Abruzzo region in Italy owes far more to an act of nature than modern building techniques.
As the dust settles after last week’s terrible earthquake in Italy’s Abruzzo region, it is time to ask some serious questions about what happened. In particular, why has an act of nature with tragic consequences been presented as predominantly the result of human error?
The earthquake that hit the Abruzzo capital, L’Aquila, and surrounding area on 6 April was a terrible event. Currently, 294 people are believed to have died and 500 people were taken to hospital, 100 of them in a serious condition. There are many heartrending stories of children killed or orphaned and families devastated. Approximately 40,000 people were made temporarily or permanently homeless, with about 17,000 people now living in tent camps. Homes, public buildings, businesses and historic buildings were destroyed.
Media reports have claimed that the earthquake was predicted and evacuations could have avoided the tragic loss of life. Gioacchino Giuliani of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics says that he predicted in March that an earthquake, a ‘big one’, would hit the area. But, he insists, ‘I was called an idiot and told that earthquakes just cannot be predicted. Now I am trembling with anger.’ (1) Vans with loudspeakers drove around broadcasting his predictions. But the scientist was reported to police for spreading false alarms and was forced to remove his claims from the internet (2).
Giuliani made his predictions after minor tremors were recorded in mid-January. He took measurements of emissions from the area of radon gas, which is expelled from the earth under intense pressure. This radon gas technique was widely used during the 1970s, but has subsequently been considered an unreliable prediction method. ‘The whole thing deflated when the places where they had detected [radon] had no earthquakes and earthquakes happened in different areas’, stated Susan Hough of the United States Geological Survey (3). Indeed, while Giuliani warned the mayor of Sulmona (30 miles south of L’Aquila) that an earthquake would strike, there was no major damage in that town.
Although our ability to predict earthquakes has improved, it is hard to conclude from these events that Giuliani’s predictions should have been taken seriously. ‘This happens all the time’, said Tom Jordan, who is a principal investigator on a worldwide project called the Collaboratory for the Study of Earthquake Predictability. ‘People send out predictions based on various stuff. It’s always hard to evaluate.’ (4)
The second claim identifying human error as a significant cause of death is that modern buildings collapsed because they were not strong enough. ‘The collapses that occurred in Abruzzo involved houses that weren’t built to withstand a quake that wasn’t particularly violent’, remarked Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology (5). Criminal builders, who have allegedly ignored modern building regulations, have been singled out for blame. Prosecutors have claimed that works contracts, especially in the south, are vulnerable to infiltration by organised crime with builders using inadequate materials under pressure from the mob (6).
There is little doubt that many modern buildings in Italy would have struggled to withstand an earthquake on the scale of the one that hit the Abruzzo region. Official figures estimate that 7.2million Italian private dwellings, or 64 per cent of the entire private building stock, were built before anti-seismic building legislation came into force in 1971 (7). There is also a good case to investigate why a number of buildings - including the modern L’Aquila university dormitory, a hotel, government headquarters and apartment blocks - collapsed. ‘What makes one angry is, if this happened in California or in Japan or some other country where for some time they have been practising anti-seismic protection, [a similar quake] wouldn’t have caused a single death’, said Franco Barberi, a leading geologist and disaster expert (8).
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Giorgio Croci, a Rome-based expert on ancient monuments, criticised modern building techniques after the earthquake. He pointed out that ancient Romans created buildings and monuments that have lasted 2,000 years and Renaissance construction was also of a very high quality (9). But this comparison is unfair; Rome does not face a comparable seismic threat to Abruzzo. A bigger problem with Croci’s comments is that they imply that ancient construction was more advanced than the efforts of modern builders. Lelio Oriano di Zio, an architect behind the restoration of the ancient Abruzzo village of Santo Stefano di Sassanio, even argues: ‘After the Industrial Revolution, we lost our heritage of wisdom about how to resist earthquakes… In our modern arrogance, we thought we knew best. Today, the first thing we need to recover is a sense of humility.’ (10)
In reality, the biggest impact of last week’s earthquake was on ancient buildings. ‘Practically all of L’Aquila’s artistic heritage suffered serious damage’, reported ANSA, the leading Italian news agency (11). Abruzzo’s largest Romanesque church, the thirteenth-century Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, fell down. The cupola of the seventeenth-century Anime Sante church and the bell tower of L’Aquila’s largest Renaissance church, San Bernardino da Siena, also collapsed. The third floor of the sixteenth-century castle that houses the National Museum of Abruzzo caved in, making the castle inaccessible. In addition, the city’s ancient access bridge was badly damaged and the oldest gate to the city, Porta Napoli, tumbled.
When we examine the overall impact of last week’s earthquakes in L’Aquila, modern buildings held up better than the ancient ones which collapsed throughout L’Aquila’s historic city centre. ‘The medieval city built 450 years ago has been destroyed’, said local builder Filiberto Cicchetti (12). ‘In two weeks it will be seen that 90 per cent of private housing built outside the city walls from the Sixties on is still viable’, he added.
When surveying media analysis of the earthquake in Abruzzo, it is striking that modern humanity, not nature, is singled out for blame. Yet Italy has a long history of serious earthquakes due to the collision of the tectonic plates of Africa and Europe that created the Apennine mountain range and the country is riddled with geological fault lines. One of the worst earthquakes occurred at Avezzano in 1915, when about 30,000 people lost their lives. My Italian wife remembers the huge tremors from the 1976 earthquake in northeastern Friuli, which killed around 1,000 people. In 1980, approximately 3,000 people perished following earthquakes in southern Italy.
In light of these facts, the comment by Guido Bertolaso, the Italian head of civil defence, that the Abruzzo earthquake was the ‘the worst tragedy of this millennium’ (13) unhelpfully reinforces a pessimistic and particularist interpretation of disasters in Italy. Apart from the fact that this millennium is only nine years old, last year’s earthquake in China and the 2004 Asian tsunami were much more devastating. In addition, such a statement by a senior state official only undermines a balanced assessment of how to respond to a disaster. Contrary to Bertolaso’s comments, the swift and effective responses of the Italian government, emergency services and volunteers impressed even the most ardent critics of a country run by gaffe-prone prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (14).
We should, of course, strive to improve building standards, and ancient buildings should be reinforced. I believe modern development increases our chances of protecting people against the devastation caused by earthquakes and other natural disasters. The people of Abruzzo deserve the best protection that modern prediction and building techniques can provide. But it is important to remember that Italy does not suffer earthquakes and other disasters due to its culture, criminal builders or poor government - it is nature that makes Italy one of the most earthquake-prone countries in Europe.
(1) Italian authorities ‘ignored earthquake warning’, inthenews.co.uk, 7 April 2009
(2) Scientist: My quake prediction was ignored, CNN, 7 April 2009
(3) Did scientist predict Italy quake?, Los Angeles Times, 7 April 2009
(4) Did scientist predict Italy quake?, Los Angeles Times, 7 April 2009
(5) Italy especially vulnerable to quake damage, Associated Press, 7 April 2009
(6) Italy especially vulnerable to quake damage, Associated Press, 7 April 2009
(7) Italy’s quake tells a familiar tale of risk, Financial Times, 8 April 2009
(8) Italy especially vulnerable to quake damage, Associated Press, 7 April 2009
(9) Italy especially vulnerable to quake damage, Associated Press, 7 April 2009
(10) The little village that defied the earthquake, Independent on Sunday, 12 April 2009
(11) Quake: Artistic damage ‘total’, ANSA, 8 April 2009
(12) Italy to hold state funeral for earthquake victims, Reuters, 9 April 2009
(13) Quake: Bertolaso, Worst Tragedy of this Millennium, AGI News Agency, 6 April 2009
(14) Berlusconi turns adversity to political advantage after quake, Independent, 10 April 2009