Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Seismic Trial: Lessons from L'Aquila

The court case regarding six seismologists and a public safety official regarding a deadly quake in L'Aquila, Italy has been rendered with the seismologists and the public official guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to prison http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-20025626.

Earlier stories regarding this case bring some perspective: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/9593123.stm


As someone that routinely assesses geologic risk as part of my work I have found the circumstances of the quake and the case itself of particular interest. In following this story, it is clear that mistakes were made regarding how risk was communicated to the public; however, parsing out just what went wrong and Does bad communication warrant a criminal conviction? is a bit complicated and the above articles at least try to shed light on the case and issues.

If there can be any conclusions it is 1) earthquake prediction is very sketchy at the present time and 2) communicating risks from earthquakes needs to be done very carefully - providing assurances that all is safe is a really bad idea - particularly in a city with buildings that were well known not to be safe. I am sure that the convictions will be appealed and the end results of this trial may turn out very differently. The Italian judicial system is a bit different than our own. This trial was in the very city where the quake took place and decided by a magistrate from that city. For one thing, several of the seismologists were not part of the communications that were put out that all was normal.

During our recent trip to Italy, we spent some time in a medieval town that was mix of modern, fixed up old buildings and dilapidated buildings. Initially I thought that the dilapidated buildings were the result of depopulation. But then we observed the site of the former church. The church had completely collapsed and was a pile of rubble that has been marked by a plaque. I then remembered that this was a region that had been devastated by an earthquake back in the 1960s killing thousands of people.

I really had to wonder if some of the repaired buildings and some of the old buildings that were occupied were safe. Looking at these buildings makes it easier to understand how even a fairly modest quake would have horrific death tolls.

Partially collapsed home, note rebuilt home on left

Repaired apartment building repaired with a mix of cement and new rock

Cracked walls both above and below repair work

If there is a lesson from L'Aquila, it may be that destruction of these old buildings is inevitable.


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