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Italy’s quake tells familiar tale of risk

April 10, 2009

By Guy Dinmore and Giulia Segreti in Rome

Published: April 7 2009

Italy’s most devastating earthquake in almost 30 years, which according to the latest count took 260 lives on Monday, was in some ways a typical Italian story. It featured dedicated professionals and volunteers mobilising for an effective relief effort, innovation by companies and individuals, and much dignity and solidarity among victims and sympathisers. But behind that lay another familiar tale – successive governments with insufficient focus and finances, good laws that lacked enforcement, and the immutable fact that an abundance of faultlines and volcanoes makes Italy a risky place to live.

As pointed out by Rui Pinho, head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Global Earthquake Model foundation, a quake in California of similar magnitude – 6.3 on the Richter scale – would probably not have caused a single death or barely any serious structural damage.

“Construction in Italy is extremely vulnerable, due to age and typology,” he said. “Even a moderate earthquake can cause large damage.”

A study in earthquake engineering by the Pavia-based European Centre for Training and Research, where Mr Pinho also works, estimates that 80,000 public buildings in Italy, including 22,000 schools, are at risk because they do not meet adequate anti-seismic standards.

Admittedly, California does not have the same problem of medieval L’Aquila and the surrounding villages in central Italy where many public buildings, churches and homes are hundreds of years old. But it was clear that a lot of the casualties of Monday’s earthquake came from relatively modern blocks that simply collapsed.

Some were built before anti-seismic legislation was introduced in the 1970s. However, Mr Pinho notes that the new seismic code of 2003 is the real benchmark – as good as standards in Japan and the US – and anything constructed before then is deemed suspect.

“The problem is retro-fitting the existing building stock. It needs a lot of resources. The government has to spend more,” he said.

Official figures indicate that 7.2m private dwellings in Italy, or 64 per cent of the entire private building stock, were built before the earlier anti-seismic code of 1971.

Post-quake reconstruction costs have been enormous in Italy and mostly borne by the government or the EU. The LaVoce group of economists estimates that €46bn ($61bn, £41bn) have been spent on the three last major quakes since 1976.

Barack Obama on Monday offered US help to Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s billionaire prime minister, who suggested that the president could help build a new village to house some of the homeless, estimated at over 17,000.

Geologists have been voicing their concern at cutbacks in their seismic projects by the cash-strapped government.

Gerardo Lombardi, advisor to the Campania regional institute of geologists, said Italy was the most dangerous country in Europe but came second to last in terms of government spending.

“The threshold of attention is only raised when there are deaths. People just forget the problem exists,” he told the FT last week after climbing Vesuvius, the world’s potentially most dangerous volcano, where 600,000 people live in the at-risk “red zone”.

He said the new seismic observatory in nearby Avellino, the site of Italy’s last most serious quake in 1980, was struggling to maintain the number of its employees. A finance ministry official said there had been no significant budget cuts.

The focus now is understandably dealing with the immediate crisis. Members of parliament said they would each donate €1,000.

Tim, a mobile telephone company, tracked calls from the zone and topped up 290,000 pre-paid clients with €10 each. Callers can donate €1 through text messages.

Twitter, Facebook and other social networks quickly became main points of “virtual gathering”, keeping the country up to date with latest developments and needs for donations.

The Civil Protection agency coordinating the relief effort mobilised 7,000 people. Some were moving within 30 minutes of the pre-dawn disaster. By last night 12 tent cities for 14,500 people were due to be completed. On the first day, 18,000 hot meals were distributed. Hotels provided some 7000 beds and the state railways laid on 800 beds in carriages.

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