Hear rumbling? It’s the sound of Italy’s disaster preparedness force crumbling

In the aftermath of the verdict yesterday condemning seven scientists, engineers and a government official to jail over earthquake risk warning, the disaster preparedness infrastructure begins to fall apart.

Italy disaster head Luciano Maiani quits over L’Aquila

The head of Italy’s disaster body, Luciano Maiani, has resigned to protest against prison sentences passed on seven colleagues over the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila.

Prof Maiani, a physicist, said the Serious Risks Commission could not work “in such difficult conditions”.

Prof Maiani’s decision to quit was announced by the Italy’s Civil Protection department, which said the commission’s vice-president, Mauro Rosi, and emeritus president Giuseppe Zamberletti had also tendered their resignations.

“The situation created by yesterday’s sentence… is incompatible with running the commission’s work in a calm and efficient manner and with its role of giving high level advice to the organs of the state,” Mr Maiani said in a statement on the department’s website.

“These are professionals who spoke in good faith and were by no means motivated by personal interests, they had always said that it is not possible to predict an earthquake,” he told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

“This is the end of scientists giving consultations to the state,” warned Prof Maiani, a world-renowned physicist who was director general of the Cern nuclear research centre in Switzerland from 1999-2003.

Yikes. Indeed, he appears to be correct. No one will step up to volunteer their opinions now.

I have been researching this story all day and have been watching the outrage exhibited by scientists worldwide.

Here are a few things you may not have picked up on in the news reports…

To be clear, the prosecution was not accusing the group of failing to predict the earthquake. It is established that you CAN’T adequately predict earthquakes. You can forecast them which means giving probability of when and where they will occur within a given time.

Being a historically seismically active area, there is little excuse for the people of L’Aquila, and Italy in general, to not understand the risk of an earthquake. The town had been devastated twice before. Yet, many of the buildings collapsed in this quake because they were never retrofitted for earthquake protection. I don’t them suing anyone about that.

It does not appear that the system in place was adequate to inform the public. The government official gave a statement that was pretty clearly SOOTHING. It suggested that there was nothing to worry about. Bernardo De Bernardinis, said: “The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable.” That was scientifically wrong and misleading. Did that reflect what the committee said? Was something messed up in translation from scientific discussion to the public forum? To me, that is the key mess up in this whole case.

At least two of the people in the group of the convicted were employees of the Italian government, the Civil Protection agency. The others were affiliated with universities and institutions. In normal cases, while operating as a representative of the government, employees are immune from suits, indemnified, or are defended by the government they represented in court proceedings. In this case, perhaps because it was a criminal charges, they faced personal liability. This perhaps is the most frightening of the issues. A civil employee must be trusted to serve the best interests of the public and they must have full backing of their institution. It’s not clear that happened here.

There was another factor that may have caused the pieces to fall how they did. The committee was issuing their opinions in light of a counter opinion of a non-scientist, Gioacchino Giuliani, a local man who worked as technician in a physics laboratory. He was reporting to the press that local radon levels had risen and thus, he predicted a coming quake. This prediction was taken seriously by the press and widely circulated, making many people nervous. The response of the committee can possibly be skewed by the unvalidated prediction of Guiliani. (He had the wrong place and wrong time, but in hindsight, he got pretty close.)

It gets REALLY messy here. There are some precursors that occur before SOME earthquakes, including changes in gases emitted from the subsurface. The uranium anomaly was documented for this location in a scientific paper (Plastino,W., et al.,) but at the time, it was a questionable claim. Should it have been considered? Yes. Not enough attention was paid to it. Regardless, with the small tremors and other precursors, the data was messy, confusing, and the pressure was on.

We can see with hindsight that the data pointed to a quake occurring, which it did 7 days after the announcement that it probably wouldn’t. But the explanation that was chosen was ALSO questionable – that the little quakes were dissipating energy, thus lowering the risk of a big quake. They didn’t know for sure either way. THAT uncertainty should have been explained to the public. A question will always remain of what they would have done with that information. How many less would have died.

So, let’s turn back time and imagine a different scenario. What if the authorities allowed Guiliani’s claims to remain in the media (they actually had them removed), and the scientists were clear about the potential risk. Everyone left their homes for 3 or so days. There was no quake. They got angry, they were inconvenienced, the economy suffered. 4, 5, 6 days. Nothing happens. It’s harder to accommodate living in fear, sleeping outside every night. How long can we put our lives on hold in this modern time? If this had played out in the opposite way then perhaps these same people would have been lauded as heroes. But, what if the quake NEVER happened? Many predictions are made that scare people into action that never pan out. (You can probably say MOST don’t come to pass. Remember Mr. Camping?) This would have been a serious disruption. If this version of false alarm had played out (which is one that was considered in contemplation, I assure you), they would have lost the bet. Can you win? No. You pretty much can’t win. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Because we don’t yet know enough about earthquake prediction to be as precise as people want you to be. Maybe someday we will get there.

Meanwhile, lessons should have been learned. I expect many have been. But criminalizing this situation has done greater harm.

The Italian courts have alienated the group of people that knew the most and want to help.

  • Plastino,W., et al., Uranium groundwater anomalies and L’Aquila earthquake, 6th April 2009 (Italy), J. Environ. Radioact. (2009), doi:10.1016/j.jenvrad.2009.08.009

  4 comments for “Hear rumbling? It’s the sound of Italy’s disaster preparedness force crumbling

  1. Phil
    October 23, 2012 at 3:47 PM

    This means every single seismologist should emigrate to California.

  2. Peebs
    October 23, 2012 at 5:05 PM

    How much of the damage was due to inadequately constructed buildings because of organised crime?

    It does make you wonder who they’ll blame when Naples suffers similar damage when Vesuvius erupts again.

    Sometimes the UK and US legal systems astound me with their judgements but the Italian judiciary seem to be on a different planet.

  3. Karen
    October 24, 2012 at 12:07 AM

    Dear Italy, you can be sure now that when the ground rumbles, creaks, cracks, and brings buildings down, you will now have no one to blame but yourselves. Also, you will have no warning. Do the California thing, tear down masonry, and rebuild with wood or steel. Can’t do that? Then pray, really hard… an approach that hasn’t worked so well in the past.

  4. Xezlec
    November 3, 2012 at 7:01 PM

    Someone I know who knows Italy told me that everyone there understands that the lower courts are insane and that reasonable verdicts don’t come until the appeal (the appellate courts are comprised of competent adults rather than corrupt, populist children). So this verdict was not a surprise, and will be overturned on appeal, international hyperventilation notwithstanding.

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