Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Will the right questions be asked about the earthquake in l'Aquila?

A state of emergency has been declared, funds are being allocated, and politics has been set aside momentarily in order to respond to the devestating earthquake which hit Abruzzo yesterday. It’s not a time for reflection, as Silvio Berlusconi pointed out in his press conference yesterday brushing aside the suggestions that this earthquake had already been announced by a researcher, Giampaolo Giuliani – who for his pains had been given an official warning by the authorities, accused of creating public panic.

It’s not a time for reflection, but it will soon be, and then a number of questions need to be answered. The bets are, though, that most of them won’t even be asked at an official level. Why this pessimism? Because there’s ample evidence from the recent past.

Most attention at the moment is focussing on the validity of  Guilani’s research and warnings. There needs to be some serious international investigation into his research, to either confirm or disprove his method. If he did in fact succesfully predict the earthquake it is a major breakthrough, as the consensus seems to be that – despite the succesful prediction of the Haicheng earthquake in China – earthquake prediction remains hit and miss.

Giuliani’s warnings though are almost a secondary issue, at least in terms of political responsibility – not acting specifically on  his warnings was perfectly understandable based on the current scientific consensus. Italy has many high-risk zones, and lots of research going on – evacuation for each suspicion based on new research would cause chaos 

There are though very real questions of political responsibility that should be answered in order to learn for the next inevitable quake. Firstly, what type of strategic plan was there for Abruzzo. The earthquake was prefigured by weeks of minor tremors, something anomalous according to residents (as reported in today’s newspapers). When should the protezione civile intervene to evacuate a whole region? Based on what criteria? And how?

Most importantly, though, is the age-old question about building standards and bureaucracy. Last night the President of the high-risk commission, Franco Barberi, declared that if the quake had happened in California it wouldn’t have caused a single death. The image initially projected is of medieval buildings crumbling under the force of the quake. What is emerging, though, is that plenty of modern buildings have collapsed, and most worrying of all a number of public buildings like the hospital could not take the strain. In 1980 strict building measures were introduced for new buildings, to ensure seismic protection. Most of the buildings that we’re hearing about at the moment pre-date that, but in the case of public buildings like the hospital there should have been an intervention to bring it up to post 1980 standards. 

After all, l’Aquila is in a high risk zone (it has had a number of devestating quakes in its history.

The suspicion is, as has been the case in other tragedies, that the existing strict laws on building standards have not been followed. A full investigation needs to be undertaken to understand how important public buildings, like the hospital, collapsed.

A trial is still underway relating to the tragic earthquake in San Giuliano di Puglia in 2002, when a school collapsed killing an entire class of small children along with their teacher. A number of public officials, builders, and inspectors have been accused for the certification that the building was safe.

San Giuliano di Puglia should, in fact, be the starting point for all the questions that need to be asked relating to yesterday’s quake in Abruzzo, because so many questions related to the management of that quake remain unanswered still.

Millions of euro went to San Giuliano di Puglia for reconstruction work,  and it has been suggested that millions of euro went missing. An official investigation was announced in 2008 (the same year that the new school in San Giuliano di Puglia was, with much fanfare, opened). Corruption and fraud followed other earthquakes, for example the Irpinia quake of 1980 which left 2735 dead, and some very influential people very rich*. 

Once the emergency has passed, and lessons must be learned, it falls to journalists to ask these difficult questions. To go back to San Giuliano di Puglia now, and see what lessons were learned there – if any.


*for further details read the report here (in Italian), detailing how Marcello Torre, mayor of the town of pagani was killed for his attempts to block the Camorra from getting their hands on earthquake reconstruction funds