Sunday, October 30, 2016

What’s new in Italy? Some notes on this October seismic swarm

Before starting: 
While I was writing today this piece about the Italian earthquake on 26th October, a new earthquake occurred in the same areas (Preci, Norcia, Ussita, Arquata del Tronto). Much information is yet to be confirmed. Some important pieces of cultural heritage, such as the Basilica of San Benedetto in Norcia, have collapsed. Places affected by the previous earthquakes in August and few days ago have been hit as well. The magnitude has to be confirmed at 6.5-6.6. It seems that some villages are isolated and at least three people have been rescued under collapsed buildings. No reported victims. All to be confirmed and updated in the next hours.

The seismic swarm on 26th October

A seismic swarm occurred on the 26th October in the Valnerina area (Umbria region) and in part of the Macerata province (Marche region). The list of affected places is long, including: Visso, Ussita, Camerino, Cingoli, Matelica, Norcia, San Severino Marche, Tolentino, Castelsantangelo sul Nera. These areas are just a few kilometres far away from Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto, hit on 24th August by an earthquake which caused 291 deaths, hundreds of injured and thousands of evacuees. The environment is similar: settlements with centuries (in some cases one millennium) of history placed on, or perched upon, hills and mountains in the astonishing landscapes of Central Apennines. The social structure is similar, with villages usually host to a few hundred inhabitants with an elderly demography. The loss of centuries of settlements, history, cultural heritage, and human-environment relationships represents again an unfathomable loss for Italy and the world.

The collapsed Basilica of San Benedetto, Norcia, this morning. Source: Twitter
While damage has been severe, there was just one reported victim (a 73 years old man due to heart attack); few were severely injured, and rescues from collapsed buildings were not necessary. This appears to be because when the first quake of 5.4M occurred, people that were already worried after the earthquake in August were able to evacuate to safer areas, so they were safe when the strongest swarm of 5.9M occurred. The earthquake was felt in Rome, where people left their houses going into the streets; in L’Aquila, which is still recovering (and will do for decades) from the earthquake in 2009; as well as in Amatrice and closer areas, where other buildings collapsed. Approximately 4000 people have evacuated, in addition to the other 3500 evacuees after the earthquake on 24th August.

It would appear that the destruction of settlements is a sufficient, but not necessary condition, to draw attention by politics, media and general audience (but I have to admit, also by scholars). The smell of victims’ blood is necessary, together with the dust on the face of rescuers awake for 48 hours (better if helped by some rescuers dogs) in order to bring politicians in the affected areas doing portraits of themselves while hugging affected people, or press and television doing interviews or filming ruins, better with a heartbreaking soundtrack on the background. Easily touching our intimate nature as voyeurs, these kind of story are something widely and rapidly shared. Conversely, a part of two initial and “emotional” days, politics, media, and press very poorly covered this October event. Being not at a catastrophic level, it can therefore be declassified as a routine into Italian life and institutions. However, this earthquake is important like any other Italian earthquake. It serves to confirm the usual trends, to reject common and established narratives given, and to add hidden perspectives which are now urgent, as very briefly presented below.

A damaged building in Visso (Macerata province), 26th October 2016. Source: RT

Confirming the perennial emergency

When a disaster happens (flood or earthquake, does not matter) in Italy, we should always wonder what has been done in the past. For example, it is acknowledged that these areas have a great exposure to seismic hazards. Seismologists recognized that seismic faults are very active in these months, so preparedness is an important phase to be understood. Therefore, efforts should have been done immediately at least for improving preparedness among communities and institutions, for updating and sharing (when present) emergency plans, for assessing their usefulness, for improving the collaboration between City Councils and communities and between different levels of government. For the longer term, critical conditions in terms of buildings and slope stability (there have been some landslides) should have been monitored, assessed, and solutions implemented. However, it seems we live in a perennial emergency, whether an earthquake, a flood, or an induced “waste crisis”. Discussions start just after an emergency, Twitter becomes inundated of hashtags, the news occupy pages of media and of political talks for two weeks, the “state of emergency” is proclaimed for years deviating from normal administrative and transparent operations; then, all sink into oblivion until the next tragedy. Great part of politics and media stopped talking about Amatrice and other areas after three weeks, leaving those places alone and the affected communities with lasting physical and social disruption.

New bottles, old wine: confirming same problems

When an earthquake happens in Italy, the immediate reaction is to point the finger to the protection of cultural heritage. In my previous intervention on this blog after the earthquake in August, I tried to explain why reducing seismic risk is not just a question of safeguarding cultural heritage, but recalls questions of political commitment, risk perception, necessity of clearer focus by institutions, collaboration with local communities, and improvement of the everyday life of these places with jobs, basic and public services, transport, environmental protection. In this way, it is time to draw attention to the astonishing problem Italy has in terms of safety in public buildings.


Some hospitals have been evacuated few days ago, as in Cingoli, Matelica, Tolentino, and Norcia. Meanwhile, some patients from some Extended Care Units have been moved to other units. In 2009, in L’Aquila, the San Salvatore hospital, opened since 2000, was severely damaged and patients were evacuated. The same happened in some hospitals in Emilia. This serves to confirm the shameful conditions of the public healthcare system.

Students’ accommodations

Among the others, the historical centre of Camerino has been evacuated. Camerino is a small town of around 7000 people hosting one of the oldest universities in Europe (since 1366), and thousands of students from around Italy. Within the historical centre, most of the students lived in rented apartments, therefore leading to ask how owners prevent harm to students which often move into town with a low/nil perception of risk and sometime have to cope with financial constraints. Questions also arise about whether a public institution such as a university (University of Camerino in this case, but we can easily extend to most of the Italian universities) cares about the quality of the accommodations and the related wellbeing provided for their students, which also largely contribute to the local economy. In this case, we have to remember that one of the students’ accommodations provided by the University of L’Aquila, a post-war multi-floor building so-called Casa dello Studente, collapsed in 2009, and 8 students perished. Again, nothing new in this case.

Schools and university buildings

A damage assessment in the area is ongoing for school buildings, and schools’ operations are suspended. This is a very sensitive issue, as in past earthquakes several schools and university buildings sustained severe damages. Recalling recent episodes, in the Abruzzi region after the L'Aquila earthquake dozens of schools were considered unsafe for occupancy and moved into temporary school shelters called MUSPs (Moduli ad Uso Scolastico Provvisorio), still on the ground and hosting thousands of students. Also the University of L’Aquila buildings were severely damaged and operated for years out of temporary solutions such as industrial hangars. In Emilia and Lombardy regions, in 2012, dozens of schools were severely damaged. In Molise (31st October 2002, rightly 14 years ago), 28 out of the total 30 victims were in San Giuliano di Puglia (1000 inhabitants), where the rooftop of the primary school collapsed because of the earthquake killing 27 kids and one teacher. Last August, a wing of the primary school in Amatrice collapsed, among the others.

The collapsed school in Amatrice. Source
While some overlaps existing between cultural heritage and public buildings exists in Italy, we should therefore include in our discussions also which kind of public services are provided, and how.

Rejecting the mantra of a generalizable reconstruction model

Some of the aforementioned villages (e.g., Visso, Ussita, Preci, Camerino, Castelsantangelo sul Nera) were already affected by the earthquake in Umbria and Marche regions on September 1997, which left 11 victims and severe damages to important cultural heritage such as the Basilica of San Francis in Assisi, one of the most important sites for catholic religion and pilgrims. Therefore, important questions arise relating to whether these collapsed buildings benefited of reconstruction funds after 1997; who assessed and monitored the reconstruction process; how it has been done; and, therefore, how reconstruction funds allocated to “build back better” were really used.

A serious investigation must eventually reject the toxic narrative of the post-disaster reconstruction in Umbria and Marche (1997) regions as a successful and exportable “model” to be applied in other affected areas. The mantra of a generic -and generalizable- reconstruction model is still in fact a commonly accepted discourse in Italy (but not limited to it). Particularly, after the earthquake in Amatrice, the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi appointed the former President of the Emilia-Romagna Region, Vasco Errani, as Commissario per la Ricostruzione, a sort of Director appointed for managing the reconstruction process. Renzi choose Vasco Errani as he was called for the same appointment after the earthquake in Emilia-Romagna in May 2012. Strong criticisms remain on his outcomes in the region (Pitzalis, 2016), while some (like me) consider this appointment as purely an opportunity to give political office to a party member. Nevertheless, the Italian government justified this appointment, claiming that Errani was successful and effective in managing reconstruction and therefore is the “right man” for exporting the “Emilia reconstruction model” in Amatrice and surrounding areas. However, longstanding evidences from scientific literature report that reconstruction models never find application, and when these models are forcibly implemented in an affected area can contribute to worsen the existing conditions (Lizarralde et al., 2010).

In Italy, the complexity of politics and of governance structures strongly affects the reconstruction process, which therefore depends on a vast range of factors, such as the “political use” of earthquake and reconstruction by central governments (as during the Berlusconi mandate after L’Aquila earthquake, 2009); the role assigned to regional governments (after the earthquakes in Friuli, 1976; Umbria and Marche, 1997; and Emilia, 2012); the relations between central and regional governments (after the earthquakes in Friuli, 1976; and Molise, 2002), between politics and science (again in L’Aquila, see for example Alexander, 2014), and between politics and powerful corrupted elites (as after the Campania and Basilicata earthquake, 1980). It is also worthwhile noting that contextual factors at the local level are decisive in addressing reconstruction and its timeframe, such as the characteristics of the built environment (not just of cultural heritage, but also of post-war and recent buildings); the capacity of the affected communities to claim and enforce their will and rights; the skills, knowledge, and capacities by local institutions (e.g., Mayor and City Councils) in managing emergency, disasters, and related risk reduction. All these variables strictly interact and shape governance, resource management, interactions. All have to be evaluated case by case, Municipality by Municipality, sometime neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and therefore do not allow to generalize the successfulness -or not- of a post-earthquake reconstruction.

Adding something new: an “emerging” problem in prisons’ safety?

An emerging problem is related to prisons and should require immediate attention not just in Italy, and came on my mind after reading this article, unfortunately in Italian. The earthquake severely damaged the prison of Camerino. Detainees were moved to Rome, while three correction officers were injured. This represents a very sensitive issue as it proves how a social system contributes to the creation of individual and collective vulnerabilities, as detainees have not freedom of movement and are constrained into their cells in case of danger or when a hazard occurs. It also represents an institutional vulnerability as the governance structure of the prison system in Italy did not go through deep reflections on how to ensure safety for detainees requiring assistance in case of hazards. This is not the first time, as for example some prisons were evacuated after the earthquake in Emilia. 

Furthermore, a very interesting witness is that of an ex-detainee in Poggioreale, the prison of Naples. He told that during the earthquake in 1980 (still the strongest and costliest earthquake in Southern Europe since 1980, 3000 victims in total, 53 victims in Naples due to a collapsed building), detainees were left into their cells as “trapped mice” while all the panicked guards left the structure. Of course, this occured 36 years ago; however, the issue of seismic risk for prison never emerged in Italy and only recently have some contributions been provided into literature (Gaillard and Navizet, 2012). The problem seems to be that no specific guidelines exist and all is left to the prison director, who has to provide safety measures for personnel and detainees, simultaneously minimizing the flight risk. Therefore, the option of opening cells is often impracticable.

It is certainly worth questioning the usefulness of jail detention for some kinds of crimes. In any case, detainees have the right to know the risks of the place and of the building, and to be put in conditions that keep them safe. Italian prisons have longstanding problems of overcrowding and of lack of basic human rights in terms of healthcare, hygiene, privacy, gender and sex disparities. The context, therefore, already reproduces vulnerability per se, for example in terms of mental health or heat- or vector-related illness. In this way, the issue of seismic risk may appear as naïve; however, it is necessary that a reflection starts now and involves decision-makers, military and civil personnel, and detainees in understanding risks and enacting adequate preparedness measures.


While the earthquake on 26th October luckily reported just one victim, it confirmed existing problems in the built environment, including the quality of public buildings. It also rejects the existence of a generic reconstruction model to be applied without considering very context-specific and local variables. It may also add a perspective, such as that of addressing the seismic risk reduction as a right of detainees, which have been underrated by now, but should find more space in scientific and public debate. Once again, these issues have to be discussed and stressed in "peace time", and not following the (genuine, but very often rhetorical) emotional mood  on social media or the political propaganda in the aftermath of a disaster. These issues have to be part of our everyday life, and should be improved through the individual and community everyday life, particularly of those which our social system make vulnerable, for a vast range of reasons.   

PS; I have to thank very much those Italian scholars with which I exchange ideas, impressions, and news about disasters and risks in Italy.  


Alexander, D. E. (2014). Communicating earthquake risk to the public: the trial of the “L’Aquila Seven”. Natural Hazards, 72(2), 1159-1173.

Gaillard, J. C., & Navizet, F. (2012). Prisons, prisoners and disaster. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 1, 33-43.

Lizarralde, G., Johnson, C., & Davidson, C. (Eds.). (2009). Rebuilding after disasters: From emergency to sustainability. Routledge.

Pitzalis, S., 2016, Politiche del disastro. Poteri e contropoteri nel terremoto emiliano, Ombre Corte.

1 comment:

  1. Safety and risk management is a vital part of any Australian business. However doing it right and in line with the new Australian WHS legislation is a complex task where many variables need to be considered.


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