Sunday, September 4, 2016


Since the night of 24 August a swarm of earthquakes of an intensity up to 6.8 degrees on the Mercalli scale have repeatedly struck an area of the Appennines in Central Italy, at Amatrice, Accumoli, Arquata, Pescara del Tronto, and some other locations in the regions of Lazio, Marche, Umbria and Abruzzo. The effects have been catastrophic: 295 dead, over 800 injured, over 4000 homeless, disrupted communications, entire towns razed to the ground. Two weeks later the earth there is still subject to frequent movements.

These events have brought out the best of Italy, with the fast, selfless and effective response of public personnel and volunteers, and the generous support of the general public. Emergency services have worked; 368 persons were extracted alive from the debris; €10 million were collected for earthquake victim assistance in the first week. At the same time, the earthquake revealed the worst face of Italy.

It is reported that the decision to undertake the repair and reinstatement of public buildings and churches damaged in the 1997 earthquake, without having to implement anti-seismic regulations, was a political decision taken by no lesser person than the former President of Italy Giorgio Napolitano – a controversial politician though still in some circles widely respected as a statesman while being equally widely reviled in others for his chequered political allegiances in the past – in the form of ordnance n. 2741 issued on 30 January 1998 by him while Minister of the Interior in the Prodi government.  Not a statesmanlike enlightened decision, then, but rather an irresponsible, vulgar austerity measure that contributed to the catastrophic nature of the latest earthquake: the buildings exempted from seismic upgrading by the Napolitano ordnance included, for instance, the church and the Carabinieri barracks of Accumuli, for which the responsible authorities can still claim that “all procedures had been followed”,

Furthermore bureaucratic hastles prevented the implementation of anti-seismic measures already decided and funded (e.g. for the Amatrice hospital). Corrupt officials had authorised the diversion of funds earmarked for the strengthening of vulnerable public buildings to other uses (e.g. from the bell tower of an Amatrice church to the priest’s residence). Corrupt builders, often with mafia connections, had used too much sand and too little cement, polystyrene in place of reinforced concrete and mosquito mesh in place of robust metallic welded sheeting (one of several well documented actual instances). Corrupt technicians and certification officers had ratified as good patently unsatisfactory works on their completion. The Mayor of Amatrice expressed the general opinion when calling for those responsible for any of these actions to be tried and imprisoned with the key thrown away, just as are the thieves trying to steal valuables from collapsed homes, or the impostors collecting funds through Internet allegedly on behalf of earthquake victims but keeping them for their personal use (again actual instances – though the Mayor is now under investigation).

Even the work of a number of volunteers has been called into question, with many of them turning out to have been under-paid workers precariously employed and exploited by the so-called no-profit organisations that have taken the place of public welfare institutions now privatised (see

In that their occurrence cannot be accurately predicted earthquakes are widely regarded as acts of god – though Italy’s peculiarities in this respect include the successful prosecution of six scientists and a former government official for failing to predict the Aquila earthquake of 2009. Actually they had tried to reassure the population saying that an earthquake was unlikely 6 days before it happened. They were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter of 29 persons and injuries of 4 persons, all were condemned to 6 years in prison and provisional damages of €7.8mn in favour of 56 victims. 

There is, of course, a highly respected geological service monitoring and investigating Italy’s physical structure and there are long-kept careful records of past earthquakes, and fairly accurate assessments of seismic risk in the Italian regions, certainly accurate enough to guide building counter-measures, insurance cover, and migrations to safer areas. Italy’s Protezione Civile's seismic map of Italy is updated to 2015.

It is, nevertheless, quite understandable that people living in high risk regions might be reluctant to voluntarily invest in anti-seismic improvements to old buildings which are not subject to the stricter regulations applying to new buildings. A cost, estimated to average about €800 per square metre, all the hastle, the paperwork, the applications for permits, the time and expenses involved, the possible appeals, not to mention the bribes that might have to be paid, deter action. And the contradictory norms: the Belle Arti department, responsible for aesthetics, is unlikely to allow a structural improvement that is not simply “conservative” but involves architectural change, while the Genio Civile responsible for safety is unlikely to allow a simple anti-seismic improvement that is judged to be inadequate. So even with the best of intentions one might decide to do nothing and hope to be unscathed by an uncertain though likely event.

It is also understandable that people living in high risk regions might be reluctant to insure themselves and their homes and possessions against earthquake risks. Insurance can be unavailable in high risk regions, except perhaps at prohibitive premiums that are simply unaffordable by most people. Were insurance to be made compulsory the possibility for insurers taking undue advantage of the position arises.

However, to a very great extent location is a matter of choice.  Over time and in the ordinary course of life, opportunities arise for changing location, not necessarily abroad (though in such a case migrants should be, though at present are not, granted the status of refugees), but moving to a different part of the same country, which presents much lower costs in terms of language, customs, currency changes and other obstacles to international migration.

Those who live in areas characterised by high seismic risk can be likened to, say, heavy smokers vulnerable to cancer or obese and sedentary persons vulnerable to cardiovascular diseases, or economic migrants crossing a dangerous sea. All of them are entitled to life-saving emergency assistance and are certainly entitled to any assistance that might be voluntarily provided by the generosity of the rest of the world. Otherwise seismic victims, like everybody else knowingly and deliberately adopting a particularly risky lifestyle, should bear ultimate responsibility for the consequences of their exposure to risk. Any claim on the public purse, i.e. ultimately on all taxpayers, is a politically determined policy choice, not a statutory right.

To the extent that a government might decide to provide more than temporary emergency assistance to earthquake victims, this is best provided in the form of a cash payment, whether a capital lump sum or a recurring subsidy, which earthquake victims are able to spend where and how they wish. The notion that towns razed to the ground by earthquake should be re-constructed “where they were, as they were”, while emotionally responsive to great loss is, in truth, populist fantasy. 

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi has produced out of thin air a “Piano Casa Italia”, including the anti-seismic upgrading of all public buildings, of productive establishments and the entire housing stock of the country. After a four-hour consultation with him Renzo Piano – life senator and architect/planner extraordinaire – bluntly and soberly warned that such an undertaking would take at least 50 years and two generations. No wonder the responsibility for the Plan was given to somebody else.

Renzi proposes, further, to finance such a Plan outside the fiscal constraints of the EU; European authorities have sympathy for such treatment for only short-term and relatively small emergency interventions. The “Piano Casa Italia” so far is only a meaningless label, without dates or details or finance attached to it. Just another of the many empty announcements to which Renzi has got us used.

Meanwhile earthquake victims – of the latest like those of earlier earthquakes – will be left ultimately to fend for themselves, resigned to their destiny because they know well, in the depth of their souls, that maybe before the ground shook under their feet they should have moved elsewhere.


Alberto Chilosi said...

"exempted from seismic upgrading". In reality the Napolitano ordnance was speaking of "miglioramento sismico" which could be translated in "seismic upgrading" or “seismic improvement”. As to the fact that all those living in seismic areas have only themselves to blame in case an earthquake occurs it is a little far-reaching. A good part of Italy or, for that matter, Japan, is a seismic area, this does not seem to be a sufficient reason for keeping the most part of Italy depopulated or of making of most Japanese (or of the inhabitants of Southern California for that matter) seismic refugees. In general humans are subject to the danger of different kinds of natural catastrophes, such as earthquakes, floods etc. One of the task of the state is either to prevent or reduce (through regulations and public works) the exposure to those dangers, and at the same time to help those who are affected by the events that anyway occur. In such a way the State performs as an insurer in a context in which the market fails (because of the sheer dimension of the risk and of the difficulty of establishing the probabilities of the events). Finally the decision to reconstruct the historical cities and villages affected by the earthquake can be justified because of cultural, artistic or historical reasons. Obviously it is a political decision as any other concerning budgetary allocations. It may be agreed or disagreed according to one's values and preferences.

Stefania Jaconis said...

There are times when nature fails, much as markets do, but often in much more horrendous ways. No escape is possible for humans - except for those whose dwellings were built (or re-built) with anti-seismic precautions. It is as simple as that, as shown by Japan and, to a lesser degree, by California. Anything else is ex-post considerations, or measures. This time, perhaps because of memories of past tragedies, the country at large has responded with generosity, showing compassion and solidarity: donations keep pouring in, alleviating the state's tremendous task of aiding the inhabitants of the villages involved. Renzi's program, hastily put together, is evidently unfeasable, but it must mark the beginning of a reconsideraton of the problem of safety from earthquakes, for the entire country. Renzi can get the process started, especially considering the short-run political advantages he may have from this tragic event.

D. Mario Nuti said...

Alberto, it is true that Giorgio Napolitano ordnance (;jsessionid=gU1+2XHnJNYJiVghNvVywA__.ntc-as2-guri2a) authorised “interventions necessary to recovery (recupero) with seismic improvement”. But such an improvement in practice can be any intervention defined as such by the technician drafting the project, possibly but not necessarily improving safety. For there was specifically no obligation to upgrade to anti-seismic standards currently applicable to new buildings. Controls on completion checked whether the work corresponded to the project, not whether there was a real safety improvement.

In 2003 Ordnance 3274 imposed on public administrations the vulnerability analysis of strategic buildings such as schools, hospitals and infrastructures, but the deadline for implementation was extended repeatedly, with no provision for upgrading to anti-seismic standards - presumably due to prevailing austerity constraints.

I did say that the earthquake had brought out the best of Italy, Stefania. Renzi's initiative may be well-meaning but I fear it is going to be counterproductive. EU authorities will only fund minor emergency investments. Renzi is indulging in a primitive Cargo Cult, nothing good can come out of it.

Alberto Chilosi said...

The point is that individuals, and governments even more, tend to be affected by a myopic perception of the future. The next seismic event is for the future, the money needed to make seismic upgrading and reconstructions is for the present. Moreover the cost of seismic upgrading to anti-seismic standards is probably much higher than to construct new buildings with anti-seismic standards. Finally it is for the local authorities and the bureaucracy to supervise the construction process for ascertain that anti-seismic prescriptions are followed (be they "improvements" or standards) and here the usual issues of corruption and sheer bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of responsibility (which are particularly acute in Italy) come to play. In reality the damages to public buildings (in particular the famous school) appear not so much due to insufficient anti-seismic construction measures but simply to lack of normal sound construction criteria due to corruption an lack of adequate bureaucratic supervision. Finally I do not understand what all that has to do "austerity". Obviously, whatever the budget constraints or trade-offs, the opportunity cost of any particular expenditure is the alternative possible expenditure. There were certainly plenty of lesser relevant expenditures or sheer waste in the budget of 1997 which could be reduced to make room for a more pervasive anti-seismic reconstruction. For instance corrupt or inefficient state employees could be laid off or the salaries and privileges of state employees, which are on the whole markedly higher than in the private sector, could have been reduced etc.etc. Fake invalidity pensions could have been investigated and suppressed. But this would have had negative political repercussions because peoples have on the whole a very myopic view of the national interest. In general Italian governments have always aimed to purchase consensus through excessive populistic public expenditures, without consideration of the inter-temporal budget constraints, as is witness by the gigantic size of our public debt.

Anonymous said...

There must be compensations for living in a seismic area, e.g. California! But Amatrice???

D. Mario Nuti said...

Don't be snooty, Anon. Amatrice is/was a very fine city with over a millennium tradition and interesting Gothic churches and monuments. Accoording to local folklore most of the Pope's cooks used to be recruited from there. The famous sugo alla Amatriciana (or Matriciana, fried bacon bits cooked in fresh tomato sauce and peperoncino, topped by grated sheep cheese and ground pepper) is best with spaghetti and bucatini (thick spaghetti-shaped pipes, "al dente" i.e. slightly undercooked)). I would not risk an earthquake by living there but would be happy to risk a week-end touring and attending their Spaghetti Matriciana Festival if I was not subject to dietary restrictions.

Michael Keren said...

Mario, for me this piece of yours was quite a lesson. We in Jerusalem are also close to the Syrian-African rift, and the eastern parts of the country are due for a seismic event. I wonder how well prepared we are. I was shocked by your story of the mismanagement by Italian authorities of the post-earthquake rebuilding after the previous event.

Alberto's comment confused me: did he mean to say that Napolitano did not prefer to disregard the reconstruction code for budgetary reasons? As for corruption--its involvement does not surprise me. Where there is corruption, it will not abstain from profiting where there is misery.

And as for Renzi--perhaps Stefania Jaconis is right, and this is his way of starting a long process that may lead to a more serious treatment of the problem that may in future avoid the most egregious failures which you are pointing out? It will not be easy, as I have learnt from you.

Alberto Chilosi said...

With Napolitano there was some barking to the wrong tree. The minister of the Interior has no budgetary powers. With the resources available to him he could have, say, either fully upgraded some public buildings to anti-seismic standards or improved the anti-seismic resilience of many more buildings. Either way probably it would have made not much difference as, because of the corruption of local authorities, normal construction standards, seismic or not seismic, were only allegedly but not practically implemented, using for instance cement with a criminally high percentage of sand (a classical crime in privately contracted public construction).

D. Mario Nuti said...

Thanks, Michael. In theory you and Stefania might be right about Renzi; he probably means well, but in the light of his earlier announcements and actual performance his credibility is zero at best, many would say negative.

Alberto Chilosi said...

The problem with Renzi, as with everything else, is always the outside option. In the specific Renzi case the really possible outside option (presently the 5 stars) appears much worse. The greatest flaw of Renzi is his populistic attitude towards building consensus through demagogic expenditures, running into increasing deficits instead of doing something to decrease the mountain of the public debt. But this attitude seems rather widespread in our parliament. At least Renzi endeavours to do some much needed reforms (such as the reform of the labour market or the constitutional reform), which may eventually increase the productivity of the Italian economy.