Saturday, August 27, 2016

The earthquake in Central Italy: stereotyped narratives and missing social science

The disaster

According to the Civil Protection Department, the earthquake which occurred in a small hill area in the Latium, Marche, Abruzzi, and Umbria regions on 24th August caused 290 reported deaths across three municipalities (230 in Amatrice, 11 in Accumoli, 49 in Arquata del Tronto). There are more than 300 injured. 2,500 have lost their homes and evacuated to tent camps. Some people are still missing. The total number of deaths will be close to that of 309 after the L’Aquila-Abruzzi earthquake, de facto representing one of the most severe disasters in Italy after the 1980 earthquake in Campania (the area I am from) and Basilicata regions, which killed more than 3000 people.

The affected area consists of small villages. Amatrice has around 3000 inhabitants, Accumoli 700, Arquata sul Tronto around 1000. The built environment is mainly constituted by cultural heritage buildings, ranging from medieval times to peasant houses of early XX century, scarcely resilient to earthquakes, and in some cases with limited ordinary maintenance. Legislators are conducting an initial investigation on the bureaucratic process by the Amatrice and Accumoli City Councils for the development approval of 115 collapsed buildings (Del Porto and Tonacci, 2016). Some of the buildings in these areas have been used as holiday houses, for example by people from Rome, which is less than two hours away by road. Among the victims, around 50 were from Rome or close areas, as well as Italian and English tourists. Villages in the Apennines Mountains and, more generally, the vast inland and rural Italy, historically suffer from limited development and few job opportunities. This has led to depopulation, abandonment by youth, and a demographic structure that is aging, mirroring the general demographic trends of Italy.  

“You talkin’ me?” (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver, 1976)

Some of the reports I have read on this earthquake seem to be using a pure hard science approach for analysing the chronic problem of disasters in Italy. For example, Gully (2016) on the IRIN website focuses on cultural heritage conservation in Italy, and claims the sacrosanct necessity for Italy to investment in earthquake-proof retrofitting. However, individuals and families have to also increase their risk awareness and to retrofit their buildings in order to be earthquake proof. In this regard, the same article quotes Michele Calvi, professor of earthquake engineering at IUSS Pavia. Calvi claims that most of the houses in the affected area were owned by the elderly, or were holiday homes, so they had no great motivation for retrofitting, and that it is necessary to create significant incentives for people to update these buildings codes. 

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. What is wrong is the selection of the expert to talk about disasters including statements on local communities. Calvi is in fact a “hard scientist” that de facto projected, promoted, and helped the Berlusconi’s government in 2009 to realize the CASE Project (Calvi and Spaziante, 2009), still now one the most ignominious and widely-criticized post-disaster housing projects worldwide. A project of 19 new settlements spread across L’Aquila, paradoxically built through a superficial top-down approach as a temporary measure in emergency but with permanent purposes (Alexander, 2013). A project which radically altered the land use and the local landscape and spatial organization, with no public services, public transport, social spaces (Calandra, 2012; Forino, 2015), and refused by part of the population (Fois and Forino, 2014). Therefore, it is quite shocking to a reader with some experience of Italian disasters that a scientist like Michele Calvi, who neglected progressive disaster social research through his action in L’Aquila, has been given space to talk about communities in the affected areas. Why does he have to talk to me?

Hey, Italiano: Pizza, spaghetti and mandolin

Another interesting piece is by Hooper (2016) in The Guardian, which reports that

“Italian officialdom reflects the values of society, in particular Italians’ generalised contempt for rules of any kind, and the prevalence of lazy officials and apathetic, or even corrupt, politicians”.

Systematic corruption permeates most of the political and institutional levels in Italy, particularly through the overlap of financial/economic lobbies, mafia, and powerful institutional positions. In the current political setting of Italy, illegal activities are often used as manu longa of legally institutionalized systems, harassing territories through industrial pollution, environmental risk, or private use of natural resource, all with the real blessing -but the apparent opposition- by formal and legal institutions. This, of course, is also reflected in disaster recovery. National and international literature is full of examples of seismic disaster recoveries (but not limited to them) in Italy which have been led by powerful lobbies, intruding into the political setting and conniving in order to raise the reconstruction cost, three, four, ten times, and demanding the required funds to be disbursed (Caporale, 2010). This process has been spammed across decades and has been held just by a fistful of powerful people within the political, industrial, and financial environment, while leaving crumbs to the rest of the community and therefore contributing to exacerbate emigration, unemployment and social injustice. In a sort of perennial post-disaster recovery associated with paternalistic development in Southern Italy, the Italian government is still sending reconstruction funds to e.g. the Belice area (1968 earthquake), to Campania and Basilicata regions (1980) and to Molise region (2002), with limited or nil improvement in terms of labour policies, social welfare or culture (Caporale, 2010).

However, as this blog consistently attempts to highlight since its birth, contemporary global politics is demonstrating that concepts such as “legal”/rules and “illegal” have always more overlaps than differences, with the “legal”/rules using -while blaming- the “illegal” to perpetrate social and spatial inequalities or to find a scapegoat for bypassing public responsibilities. Wars, exploitation, neo-colonialism, racism, asylum-seekers debate, civilization clash propaganda demonstrate this, every day and at each scale and latitude. Italy is therefore perfectly framed within, but also exacerbates, the common and contradictory democratic framework that we observe within the global neoliberal society. No. Italy is not a black sheep within an innocent and virtuous flock made by US, European Union, Australia, or puppet dictators worldwide.

In addition, the aforementioned statement does not consider the other side of disaster recovery history in Italy. The country has seen impressive social mobilization, as born in post-earthquake areas to claim democracy, participation, rights, and law requirements, such as the struggle for work rights and prompt reconstruction in Belice or Campania and Basilicata (Ventura, 2010), the bottom-up reconstruction plans by some affected communities (Forino, 2015), the community resilience initiatives (Fois and Forino, 2014), and the participatory practices (Calandra 2012) in L’Aquila, as well as the grassroots mobilization in Emilia Romagna (Hajek, 2013). Hooper (2016) manages to trivialize, probably because he is not aware of, the bottom up requests for transparency, democracy, and laws, in opposition to the systematic corruption after disasters. Talking about “values of a society” is therefore always problematic, particularly when trying to judge an entire national system and its inhabitants in a wicked event such as a disaster. Values are always individual, although mediated by the context in which these are performed and experienced, and claiming that the values of the Italian society are those of laziness, corruption, and bypassing rules is stereotypical and discriminatory.

A missing social science

These articles are just two among the numerous reports of the earthquake in Italy that have proposed a partial analysis to a complex issue such as a disaster. While hard scientists and professionals such as seismologists, geologists, engineers, architects, planners, economists are necessary figures to assist politics and policy-making in being effective, they have to be supported by, and to mutually support, the analysis of social issues that intervene within a disaster scenario and have contributed to shape disaster literature for the past 80 years. Such analysis includes for example history, development, specific needs within communities of people with disability or children, communication, formal and informal network between citizens and institutions (Ventura and Carnelli, 2015). Scientists and professionals such as anthropologists, sociologists, communication and media experts, geographers, and territorial scientists of any sort are fundamental in adding a human and social perspective to disaster studies and actions, and particularly in deconstructing partial and superficial narratives such as those aforementioned.

UPDATE: on 28th August, this post has been republished with some slight revisions in the blog run by ENTITLE, a European network of research and training on political ecology. I strongly recommend this blog, particularly for readers interested in neoliberalism, development and environment. This is their Facebook page. For Italian readers, an Italian version has been published on 29th August on the Facebook page Protezione civile e riduzione del rischio da disastri, and has been uploaded on my Academia.

Alexander, D.E., (2013), An evaluation of the medium-term recovery process after the 6 April 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, central Italy. Environmental Hazards, 12 (1), 60– 73.
Calandra, L. M. (2012). Territorio e democrazia. Un laboratorio di geografia sociale nel doposisma aquilano. Edizioni L'Una.
Calvi, G. M., Spaziante, V. (2009). La ricostruzione tra provvisorio e definitivo: il Progetto CASE. Progettazione sismica3, 227-252.
Caporale, A. (2010). Terremoti spa. Dall'Irpinia all'Aquila. Così i politici sfruttano le disgrazie e dividono il paese. Rizzoli.
Del Porto D., Tonacci, F., 2016, Terremoto, l'accusa del procuratore: “Palazzi con più sabbia che cemento”,
Fois, F., Forino, G. (2014). The selfbuilt ecovillage in L'Aquila, Italy: community resilience as a grassroots response to environmental shock. Disasters38(4), 719-739.
Forino, G. (2015). Disaster recovery: narrating the resilience process in the reconstruction of L’Aquila (Italy). Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography115(1), 1-13.
Hajek, A., (2013), Learning from L'Aquila: grassroots mobilization in post-earthquake Emilia-Romagna. Journal of Modern Italian Studies18(5), 627-643.
Hooper J., (2016), Italy earthquake throws spotlight on lax construction laws,
Ventura S., (2010), Non sembrava novembre quella sera, Mephite.
Ventura S., Carnelli, F., (eds.), (2015), Oltre il rischio sismico. Valutare, comunicare e decidere oggi, Carocci.


  1. Fantastic to hear your fresh perspective on this disaster, Giuseppe. We could all learn a lot from the social mobilization achieved in Italy after disasters, but unfortunately simplistic stereotyping of people groups is very popular for most journalists and some scholars. Great work...I hope we see a lot more in this space as scholars work to promote a DRR focus in Italian society.

  2. Thanks Jason. I think Italy is a great case study for post-disaster community resilience and mobilization, particularly when large scale disasters such earthquakes happen in Southern Italy on Central Southern Apennines, in which a range of structural differences persists in terms of economy and welfare compared to Northern Italy and cities.

  3. Fascinating insight Giuseppe, well observed and well written. Familiar with the charming hill towns of Umbria, my first thoughts after 24/08 was "the buildings are so old!, the people who live in them never stood a chance". Made of stone held together with earthen mortar and supported by ancient roof beams covered in terracotta could they resist a quake? How will they 'build back better' but still maintain a heritage village architectural appeal? Is this the end of some villages like Amatrice? Will the villagers devastated by the quake give up and move to the cities? So I was sincerely interested to read your comments. I hope you develop these ideas into a journal article on seismic disaster recovery in Italy - a refreshing unique angle coming from an Italian DRR scholar, writing in English, based at an Australian university. Ti faccio i miei complimenti. Raichel Le Goff

    1. Hi Raichel, thank you for your comment. Most of these places are populated now by old people or are used as tourist attraction. They are generally very small communities. Amatrice is around 3000 people, for example. In terms of reconstruction, lesson learned from the past events is that of course not all heritage and built environment can be rebuilt. Cultural heritage is rebuilt if damages allow and if it has a great significance for local community or Italian culture. I think, at first impression, that places will be rebuilt on the same place, but we will see how much can and will be preserved. What we should be aware of is that in any case these small communities in seismic areas, which are relatively remote areas (for Italian standard, of course) on Apennine hills, on Sicily hills and on Eastern Alps, are declining due to huge differences in terms of social services and life opportunities compared to plain areas, coastal areas or generally cities. Their conditions particularly in these last fifteen years with budget cuts and following closure to hospitals, local transport by bus and railway, posts office, banks, is leading to youth emigration and lack of territorial presidium, as well as scarce maintainance of the built environment. Population start to get old, sometime with a limited pension, as well as a lot of houses are empty or shared with several owners with just small inherited quotes (you know, 5 brothers and sisters may have a quote into a small house of 80 square meters) so there is of course no way of a long term strategies of DRR. If these things are not addressed and the only issue is related to "oh, we need to retrofit buildings", nothing positive will happen in the near future.
      Complimenti per il tuo italiano :)
      Thanks, Giuseppe