Earthquakes ravage central Italy… and the true disaster may have only begun

It’s not the first time, or the last, that Europe’s famous boot got a major kick from down below compliments Mother Nature.

On Tuesday central Italy was rocked by a 5.5-magnitude earthquake, which has since been followed by some 1,000 plus aftershocks, with equal and larger magnitudes, devastating ancient villages in the Apennine Mountains and leaving a rising death toll in its wake, as of print sitting above 290.

While it might not be the first quake-hotspot that comes to mind, geographically speaking, Italy’s extremely quake-prone, sitting atop the junction between the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, evident by the Alps and numerous volcanoes dotting the surrounding fault lines. And at around the same time the Eurasian and African plates first butted heads, some 30 million years ago, the Indian and Arabian plate also pushed up against the European plate, birthing the Pyrenees, Himalayas, and subsequent faults. A smaller fault line also coincides with the Apennine Mountain range.

‘Italy has a long history of natural disasters because of both its geological confirmation and social demographics, ’ says Dr. Anna Scolobig with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, aka ETH Zurich and IIASA Vienna. ‘In the past 1,000 years we’ve had something like 30,000 seismic events, making Italy one of the countries with the highest seismic risk all over the world.’

And most of the country’s fault are active, particularly those of a shallow nature. In the past two centuries 160,000 civilians have lost their lives to quakes. And since 2000 over 100 seismic events with magnitudes of four or higher have occurred. While the death tolls of more recent quakes have been greatly reduced, Scolobig says, they’re still rather shocking.

‘The number of victims may not compare to places like Nepal or China, but for Europe, these losses are major,’ says Scolobig. ‘They also make us consider that 23 million Italians, nearly 40 percent of the population, live in places of high seismic risk,’ she said. On top of this, an estimated 60 per cent of buildings are not in accordance with seismic codes, especially ancient structures. When everything is all said and done, it’s not the quake that kills as much as the infrastructure.

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A map showing where the earthquake struck. Illustration: Wikipedia

And of course it’s not just lives at stake. The financial, historical, and cultural burden of quakes is also massive. In the last 40 years seismic events have racked up a bill exceeding £130 billion with the Italian government alone. NGOs and international agencies have helped with the rebuild of cultural sites in particular, Scolobig added, but it’s an incredibly slow process. Fairly leveraging recovery funds is difficult in the best of scenarios, let alone in a place with such a rich historical legacy. Then there’s the matter of deciding how to repair structures, particularly those of an already delicate nature or where little reference material exists.

‘We’re discussing repairing structures dating back to the Medieval or Roman times, some even before,’ says Scolobig. This brings major challenges, like whether new codes should be included if they compromise the look, which sites should be rebuilt, and whether it makes sense to replace historic homes with modern apartments or condos.

Many of the sites damaged in 2009 and 2012 are still a work-in-progress. And last Tuesday’s events were likely only the start of a long period of uncertainty. In Italy’s 1976 quake, the first major shocks hit in May, followed by a much larger quake in September, leaving the already vulnerable even more so right before the onset of winter. The same scenario stands to play out now.

In order for reconstruction efforts to be truly successful, Scolobig said, Italians need to feel more responsible for the results of natural disasters. She says Italian culture tends to favour action after the fact over preventative measures. Regardless of past events, many people don’t have earthquake insurance.

‘People still trust the government to reimburse them and protect them if things go wrong,’ said Scolobig. ‘But as the mayor of Amatrice recently said to his residents, “We all need to feel like the Mayor.” Each person needs to take ownership of the task from here on out and do their part.’

These kind of public statements demonstrate a major change in attitude since the 2009 quake, explains Scolobig. Six months of tremor swarms predated the quake, leading people to demand a prediction of the chances of a major quake. The Major Risk National Commission held a meeting to discuss the affair and the concluding message conveyed to the public by officials and the media was one of reassurance. 

The debacle that ensued only concluded last October, after the 2011 trial and conviction of six scientific advisors, and one civil servant present at the meeting prior to the quake, for manslaughter was overturned, vindicating all but one official, the then–deputy head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department (DPC), the only one of the seven that was in charge of decision making.

Scolobig says the case taught the Italian government, and public, a lot about the true nature of earthquakes and the best way to handle them. ‘Today officials are much more precautious in how they convey messages about earthquakes, and people now seem to understand these are not events that can be predicted or forecasted with any certainly,’ she says, citing this switch as a critical step towards getting everyday Italians invested and engaged in reconstruction, maybe even prevention efforts.

The Church of Sant'Agostino in Amatrice in 2012. Photo by Silvio Sorcini
The Church of Sant’Agostino in Amatrice in 2012. Photo by Silvio Sorcini

Some villages have taken a hold of this notion already. In traditional Italian fashion some residents and local groups are using food as therapy—and a fundraising tool. Just a few hours after the disaster began graphic designer Paolo Campana used Facebook to suggest a Euro be donated for every plate of spaghetti all’ amatriciana purchased, a dish the medieval hilltop town of Amatrice, nearly levelled by the quake, is renowned for, consisting of some combination of tomato, ghost milk cheese, cured pork cheek and a touch of hot chillies and/or pepperoncini. Within a mere 48 hours, some 700 odd Italian eateries had singed onto Campana’s idea. Others, like Italian-food website Foodiamo, have arranged similarly styled campaigns with restaurants in Los Angeles and New York City.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has pledged £50 million in aid, while rescue workers continue their work, pausing during aftershocks. So far some 400 plus people have been taken to hospital and there’s plenty of unknowns, such as precisely how many vacationers were trekking in the region.

Scolobig notes that it’s hard to say what will happen next, in regards to further quakes or recovery efforts. ‘In some cases half of the entire town was destroyed, populations halved,’ said Scolobig. Many will spend the next few days and weeks simply grappling to come to terms with what has happened.

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