Earthquakes continue in central Italy

Italy should educate the public about disaster preparedness before the next earthquake strikes.

Mary Wilsey

I didn't know that Italy had earthquakes,” was a common comment among foreigners in Italy and abroad soon after the earthquake that hit central Italy on 24 August last year.

Didn't know? How is it possible that they didn't know? Perhaps they could be excused from not knowing that the northern Lazio town of Amatrice – one of the places worst affected by the quake – was hit by an earthquake on 7 October 1639 that killed 500 people. But that they didn't know Italy was prime earthquake territory seems far fetched. In the last half century there has been one serious earthquake every decade, with many smaller ones in between, but hardly anyone can name them all.

I didn't know that Italy had such frequent earthquakes,” was another remark heard soon after the quake that hit roughly the same area six weeks later on 26 and again on 30 October.

After the 6.5 magnitude earthquake on 30 October, followed by a lesser but still serious shake (5.3 magnitude) on 18 January, again in central Italy, nobody – whether living in Italy or abroad – could not now know that the Italian peninsula is one of the most earthquake-prone parts of the world.

But why is it that so many school children the world over know about the dangers of the San Andreas Fault along the west coast of Canada and the United States, as well as about earthquakes in Japan, but so few know about the dangers of the Apennines? For a start the earthquake fault doesn't even have a name that anyone can remember. And why does the general public know so little about it? For instance is it one fault or several? Is it connected to the other faults in north and south Italy – those that caused the Belice earthquake in Sicily in 1968, the Friuli earthquake in 1976, the Irpinia earthquake in 1980 and the L'Aquila earthquake in 2009 – or is it separate and different? What are the cities and towns that are most at risk?

Italy has an internationally renowned centre for the study of earthquakes and volcanoes, the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV). It also has a very efficient civil protection system that goes into full swing once an earthquake hits. Nevertheless earth tremors in Italy still catch everyone unprepared. Why for example is the public perception of the country's volcanoes – several of which are active and deadly – so much higher than that of its earthquakes? Is it because they are so visible, so seemingly picturesque and such tourist attractions (think of Vesuvius, Etna and Stromboli) while earthquakes are eerie, deep down and incomprehensible?

Part of the reason may be that the understanding of earthquakes and what to do in one is still developing. Even the way to calculate their strength has changed in recent years. Once they were measured by the Richter or Mercalli scales, now they are measured by magnitude. This change, while more accurate, makes it difficult for the public to compare one earthquake with another.

Then there is the question of what to do when the earth shakes. There are numerous theories and techniques that depend on whether you are inside or outside, whether or not buildings are seismic-proof. It should also be remembered that a bad tremor, which is reasonably common, is not the same as a bad earthquake. During the latter it is almost impossible to stand upright, to continue walking or driving or to get out of bed. In this situation the immediate standard procedure approved by the American Red Cross and the United Nations is Drop, Cover and Hold On, in other words drop to the ground, protect your neck and head with one arm and find cover under a table or a desk, hold on and move with it until the shaking stops. If indoors, position yourself near a load-bearing inside wall, not an exterior one, away from windows and large pieces of furniture. If you are in bed, stay where you are, holding a pillow over your head and neck. Do not move for more than about two metres at this stage because of the danger from flying objects. Contrary to intuition it is best not to make a dash outside as falling masonry is a major cause of injury and death.

Even this basic knowledge is rare in Italy and ask anyone, even now what they should do and they will probably say they don't know. Many don't even know whether their dwelling is anti-seismic.

Should you make for the stairs and get out of the house as quickly as possible? Should you get under a table or a desk? Once the shaking stops what should you do and where should you go? Is there a number you can call? What do you do if your children are at school, and how prepared are the schools with information for parents and children? What are the plans for accessing dangerous areas and for evacuation? Do mayors of the most at-risk towns and cities know what to do?

Anyone living in the area of the San Andreas Fault or in Tokyo will know what they have to do when a “big one” hits. This is where nation-wide public awareness campaigns play their part. Cities on the west coast of north America and in Japan have their disaster websites with emergency information and in Japan 1 September is Disaster Prevention Day, to commemorate the 1923 Tokyo earthquake that killed over 100,000.

So why not Italy? In other earthquake zones in the industrial world it is good practice to keep a disaster emergency kit* (one for each person living in the house) and one for all children at school. It should be equipped for 72-hour survival on the assumption that even though the dwelling may still be standing the usual services such as water, electricity, sewage, cash dispensers and telecommunications may not be functioning.

Community centres are already designated in many north American and Japanese cities and everyone knows where these are. Families have plans about what they should do if an earthquake hits during the day, who will collect the children from school and where they will meet up again as soon as they can.

It is possibly unfair to compare what could happen elsewhere with village and rural life in the Apennines, where some of the buildings date back to the 14th century, are made of stone or the local tufo and don't have anti-seismic foundations. But a well-organised campaign to make people aware of what to do in the early phases of an earthquake would save lives and make evacuation easier. It wouldn't take much for social media (the US, Canada and Japan have numerous examples), public broadcasting and schools to play their part.

The then prime minster, Matteo Renzi, promised that everything in the villages affected by the 2016 disasters would be restored – private houses, churches and the economy – and Italy has in general a good track record of post-earthquake restoration.

The reconstruction in the Friuli, Venezia-Giulia region is a model example, and closer to Rome the rebuilding of the small village of Tuscania, which was destroyed in 1971, is another case study. In Assisi parts of the Cimabue frescoes in the vault of the church of St Francis, that were shattered by the 1997 quake, were back in three years, and within five years 50 per cent of the 80,000 fragments of the Giotto frescoes over the door had been pieced together again.

Reconstruction in L'Aquila has proved more difficult for a number of reasons. There were several cases of corruption early on, however the main difficulty has been that ownership in the centro storico was fragmented and difficult to identify, with some 56,000 dwellings and roughly the same number of owners. It was only once they had organised themselves into consortia of neighbouring properties, called aggregates, which were then given official legal status, that reconstruction was able to progress.

Towns and cities are rebuilt despite people's present pessimism. But disaster and survival preparedness, in the family, at school, in the work place, should become as urgent as plans for evacuation and restoration – before the next earthquake hits.

For more detailed information and in the absence of any similar Italian site see www.earthquakecountry.org. Italian sites include www.meteoweb.eu/ and www.protezionecivile.gov.it.

SIDE NOTES

There have been seven earthquakes of over magnitude 6 in Italy in the last 50 years.

1976. Friuli, 6.5 magnitude, over 900 dead, over 1,700 injured.

1980. Irpinia/Naples, 6.9 magnitude, nearly 5,000 dead, over 7,000 injured.

1997. Assisi, 6.1 magnitude, 9 dead and none injured.

2009. L’Aquila, 6.3 magnitude, 309 dead, over 1,500 injured.

2016. 24 August. Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto, 6.0 magnitude, 298 dead, over 400 injured.

2016. 26 and 30 Oct. Norcia, 6.5 magnitude, no dead, 20 injured.

Disaster emergency kit

* It should contain water, dried food, a multi-purpose pen knife, a battery-operated torch and radio, a thermal blanket, house and car keys, necessary medication, vital documents such as ID or passport and property deeds in the case of home ownership, a list of emergency contacts, a change of clothing, shoes and toiletries. Don't count on smart phones as telecommunications could be down. The survival bag should be easy to grab at a moment's notice, light enough to carry and up-dated once a year.

 

First published in the December edition of the paper edition of Wanted in Rome.