Managing a seismic disaster in Italy: a brief commentary for an “emergency toolkit”
On April 21st, a unique project in Italy has been inaugurated: the State of Things (lo Stato delle Cose). It is a journey in space and time throughout the “Italian earthquakes” with over 10,000 pictures by over 60 photographers. The creator of the project, Antonio di Giacomo, asked some editors of our focus to critically reflect on earthquake management in Italy
Confirmations: a perpetual emergency
Reflecting on the latest disaster in Italy, whatever its origin was, brings anyone to consider what has been previously done in terms of prevention and preparedness. For example, regarding the earthquakes that repeatedly affected the Apennines between Umbria, Latium, Marche and Abruzzi regions from 24th August 2016 to January 2017, seismologists and geophysics had firmly and persistently claimed that the seismic faults in those areas were -and remain – very active. Therefore, these experts have asked the different government levels to be ready for potential future emergencies. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake which affected the villages of Amatrice, Accumoli, and Arquata del Tronto on 24th August 2016, efforts should have been done for improving preparedness among communities and institutions, sharing and updating (if existing) emergency plans, assessing their usefulness, and improving the collaboration between City Councils, communities, and governments. Likewise, efforts in the longer term would be necessary for monitoring and assessing critical conditions of buildings and slope stability, and for providing solutions accordingly. At least, it would have been necessary to think about it or to start addressing problems.
Instead, the habit is that of operating in a perpetual emergency. Politics starts discussions after the event, Twitter usually overflows with alert and compassion hashtags, the Facebook algorithm and Parliamentary reports cover the emergency for a couple of weeks, and a “state of emergency” is being declared for years, deviating from normal administrative and transparent operations; then, all sink into oblivion until the forthcoming tragedy. Once on shore, we pray no more.
In August 2016, a great part of politics and media finished talking about the affected areas after three weeks, leaving alone those places and communities with lasting physical and social disruption. The same happened after the earthquake in January 2017, once the bodies were extracted from the rubble of the Rigopiano Hotel, buried under an avalanche on the Abruzzi mountains. In the same way, immediately after the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009, the buzz by media coverage was initially huge, but the forthcoming Easter time gave the chance to perform a mediatic funeral of the victims in correspondence of the Good Friday, with the function of a media grieving process. During the Good Friday procession/funeral so the Holy Cross had encapsulated the grieving of the whole (local and national) community, before the Holy Resurrection has lead to a new “temporary” normality made of tent camps and state aid, out of the spotlight – a relief blessed by Christ himself. This mediatic performance (broadcasted on TV and spread through major newspapers) worked as a ritual inversion that went straight to the heart of the compassionate spectator: it pretended to solve the trauma, pushed away the need for certainty that lies over a presumed “restored” daily life, and removed the rubble from the media coverage by entrusting ourselves to God. God will protect us from the shakes of both the Earth and our souls, until the next earthquake comes. Despite divine interventions, eight years later the real emergency in L’Aquila is still there.
Findings: the image of risk
With an average of a major earthquake occurring in Italy every 5 years in the last 117, we could have the privilege – the only one in the world – to get a National Museum of Earthquakes projecting in 3D the seismic hazard map on the territory, with indices and indicators weighted on real characteristics of soils and buildings: a futuristic archaeology of ruins negotiated with Sant’Emidio (one of the saints usually invoked in the catholic tradition against earthquakes in Central and Southern Italy). If risk can be conceived as a mental construct, whose perception and construction are missing topics into the Italian public debate, causes and effects are real but with no captions describing them in this experimental Museum.
The immobility of the ruins and the need to rebuild safely by parroting the mantra “as it was, where it was” (com’era, dov’era) are mirrored into a perennial election campaign, too busy in propaganda to dedicate enough time and space to analyze thoroughly physical and social vulnerabilities (e.g. see this volume or the framework developed by Ivan Frigerio for social vulnerability in Italy).
This clearly represents the lack of the idea that seismic risk should be conceived as a trans-disciplinary concept in which spatial planning, safety, participation, and awareness are considered as intertwined within an inclusive, adaptive and long-term strategic program. While 67% of the Italian territory is seismically active, 75% of the housing stock does not meet earthquake-proof standard requirements. Facing this “breach” in security, it is necessary addressing the various risk components within an integrated perspective which includes early warnings, risk assessment management, communication, and participation, as well as historical, geographical, social and cultural aspects.
Common sense: the mantra of a generalizable reconstruction model
Some of the villages which were affected by earthquakes in 2016 (e.g. Visso, Ussita, Preci, Camerino, Castelsantangelo sul Nera) were already affected by the Umbria and Marche earthquake on September 1997, which resulted in 11 casualties and serious damage to cultural heritage, such as the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Therefore, some questions arise: why did some of the buildings which benefited from reconstruction funds collapse? How were funds been allocated and used? Who did assess and monitor the reconstruction process?
At this point, it should therefore be revised – if not rejected – that toxic narrative that sees post-disaster reconstruction in Umbria and Marche (1997) as a successful, exportable and applicable “model” in other affected areas. The mantra of a generalizable reconstruction model is in fact commonly accepted in Italy. Nonetheless, the complexity of political action and multi-level governance structures – e.g. the “political use” of reconstruction, the role of regional governments, the relationship between politics and science, and between politics and business elites – greatly contributes (or does not) to the reconstruction process. It is also worthwhile the crucial role played by the local context – for the good or the bad – in creating the conditions, and providing the resources for, addressing the physical and social reconstruction. The characteristics of settlements and of the built environment, the capability of local communities to claim their rights and will (see the experiences of Danilo Dolci in Belice or the female cooperatives in Irpinia), the skills and resources by local institutions (such as Mayors and their Cabinets) in dealing with disaster and risk prevention are all decisive variables within the reconstruction process. The reconstruction “models” should therefore be assessed case by case, Municipality by Municipality, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, often home to home, and their effectiveness cannot be generalized.
In short, reconstruction models are not exportable (even the World Bank says so!). When they are forcibly and top-down imposed on the affected areas, reconstructions contribute to worsening the local conditions (as Lizarralde and colleagues well argue). In this way, doubts emerge about the appointment of the former President of the Emilia-Romagna Region, Vasco Errani, as Commissioner for the ongoing reconstruction in Abruzzi, Latium, Umbria, and Marche Regions, a role he previously played for the reconstruction in the Emilia region after the earthquake in 2012. Although Errani was unanimously advertised as the “right man” to apply an imaginary “Emilia reconstruction model” in these areas, criticisms were expressed about his experience in Emilia. While it is too early for providing an objective judgment, the data the Civil Protection Department released 6 months after the Amatrice earthquake are quite disappointing: 8,776 people are accommodated in hotels, 1,743 in sports halls or public facilities, 1,080 in campers, containers or rural prefabricated shelters, 18 emergency housing facilities were delivered (in Norcia, out of the expected 3,000). All the rest consists of self-organization (see the interesting experience of the Active Solidarity Brigades or many local associations) or abandonment.
Conclusions: How to survive the emergency?
The layered ruins and the temporary houses from Norcia (2016-2017) to Irpinia (1980), from L’Aquila (2009) to Emilia (2012) to the next earthquake, demonstrate the inefficiency of the current ways of managing seismic risk in Italy: confirms, findings and common sense merely confirms a perpetual emergency. Furthermore, a supposed single model does not exist. There are not enchantresses or wizardries. There is no Berlusconi at all, thanks God. It’s the territory which makes the “model” and so are the needs of the inhabitants and the socio-economic, cultural, and institutional contexts. It is necessary to act in an integrated, adaptive and inclusive way through a long-term political project able to combine planning and design with risk and communication perception, social and economic capital with cultural and institutional aspects. In Italy, hazard and exposure maps are available; Italy also has earthquake-proof technology, up-to-date assessments of physical and social vulnerability, social, psychological and cultural analyses on risk, decades of reconstruction experiences, studies on risk communication, as well as increasing analysis on emergency communication and big data. What is really missing is a long-term and locally-coordinated political project that can adapt to, and interact with the territorial characteristics, and that is able to divert resources from perennial emergency to local practices that simply allow the buildings to stand. Without any miracle, mafia clan, or jargon.
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*This article (without pictures) has been originally published in Italian on the website of the project Lo stato delle cose.