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 http://nuke.carloclericetti.it/VolontarienemicidelloStato/tabid/475/Default.aspx).
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.