Thursday, March 5, 2015

L’Aquila is rebuilding after disastrous quake; lessons to be learned from controversial public meeting

Barack Obama and Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi meet in Onna near L'Aquila after the 2009 earthquake. Photo: Maurizio Brambatti, EPA
This coming April 6 will mark the six-year anniversary of a devastating earthquake centered in L’Aquila in Central Italy, an event that killed 309 people in the region and leveled much of the mid-sized city’s historic center. Several buildings completely collapsed in the 6.3 quake, and approximately 1,500 people were injured. Twenty of the victims were children. About 65,000 people were left homeless. We visited L’Aquila this week with Kurt and Lauren Newcomer and found that the earth is still shaking, but now it is from the myriad excavators, cranes, loaders, forklifts, jackhammers and other machines at work, cleaning up rubble and rebuilding walls.

Several things about the visit surprised us.
Exterior beams hold up existing walls.
The first thing we noticed is that many buildings on the edges of the town look much the same as they did just after the quake. They are cracked, crumbling and abandoned. But after we parked and entered the centro storico on foot, we saw several dozen huge cranes at work, lifting beams and concrete walls into place. Nearly every building was wrapped with a framework of wooden or metal beams to make sure all the old walls stayed in place, and shields had been placed to prevent crumbling plaster from falling on pedestrians. On the ground, crews were scooping up rubble by hand and with Bobcat mini-loaders from the insides of buildings and hauling it to dumpsters. The bustle of activity encouraged us with the thought that life will someday get back to normal in L’Aquila.

It also surprised us that pedestrians like us were allowed to roam the streets a midst the construction workers.
We could have walked right in.
 We could have climbed through open windows to look inside the crumbling interiors, had we been foolish enough. Lucy peeked inside one window just in time to see a piece of ceiling drop off and land on top of previously accumulated debris, sending a dust cloud up and out the window. At one time, I was watching a crane high overhead as it rotated with its load when I realized that the hook and its cargo were probably directly over my head. In the lawsuit-wary United States, we don’t think we would have been allowed to get so close to the action. But if the contractors fenced off every construction site in town, it would prevent residents from accessing their homes and businesses. Italians are already accustomed to walking on sidewalks and alleys that are rough and uneven, so a few more obstacles is nothing unusual.

Despite my observation about the high amount of construction activity in the city, the residents have not been pleased with the progress. For the past six years, students have been housed in prefabricated temporary metal classrooms. Newspaper La Stampa wrote that though the portable buildings were “first class” when new, “time takes its toll, and even the most solid of metal turns tin-like, and Scotch tape is used to seal cracks on the floor, ceilings collect water, sewers don’t work, windows don’t open and a heating system is blamed for a surge in allergies and respiratory infections.”

L’Aquila made the news again in October 2011 when seven men–four scientists, two engineers and a government official–were convicted on charges of criminal manslaughter because “they failed in their institutional duty” by not properly assessing and communicating risk and provided “incomplete, imprecise and contradictory” information. They were sentenced to six years in prison. Scientists worldwide decried the verdict, arguing, correctly, that earthquakes can’t be predicted at this time. The verdict for the scientists and engineers was overturned in November of 2014, but the government official still received a two-year sentence.

Initially, I was also amazed and upset at the guilty verdict, but after reading more about it, I understand the reasoning of the judge. In explaining his sentence, he made an effort to emphasize that he had not convicted the experts for having failed to predict the earthquake—something, he said, that is beyond the powers of current science—but rather for having failed to carry out their legally binding duties to study factors indicating a heightened seismic risk, including the fact that previous quakes that destroyed the town were accompanied by smaller tremors, as they were in 2009. The public official who was sentenced had argued that the ongoing seismic activity was “discharging energy” from the fault and therefore was to be seen as positive. He encouraged the public to stop worrying and to raise a glass of wine instead.

According to BBC News, in the closing statement, the prosecution quoted Guido Fioravanti, whose father died in the earthquake. He had called his mother at about 11 p.m. on the night of the earthquake, right after the first tremor.

“I remember the fear in her voice,” he said. “On other occasions, they would have fled, but that night, with my father, they repeated to themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed.”

I still side with the scientists and even the convicted public official, but it is true that lessons can be learned about how to deal with the public in similar situations. Massimo Mazzotti, director of the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society, and associate professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in Times Higher Education, “The documents of the trial, however, make it clear that what was at stake in the courtroom at L’Aquila was not the scientists’ inability to predict earthquakes, but rather their inability to address public concerns and to communicate risk effectively. Earthquake experts must communicate public risk more effectively to avoid a repetition of the Italian media fiasco . . .”

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