The Inside Story of the L’Aquila Affair
On April 6 2009 a major earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy killed hundreds of people. On October 22 2012, seven people were convicted of manslaughter for downplaying the likelihood of a major earthquake six days before it took place.
I don’t think that the scientists and engineers in Italy should go to prison for failing to clearly communicate the risk to the public.
But … most of the reporting on this side of the Atlantic has been inaccurate. No one was convicted for “failing to predict an earthquake” as has been widely reported. Here is the rest of the story.
1. What Happened
L’Aquila is a small town about 60 miles north-east of Rome. In 2009, the town experienced a swarm of tremors. A local crackpot named Giampaolo Giuliani started making his own earthquake predictions which made nervous residents even more nervous.
According to Wikipedia:
The 2009 L’Aquila earthquake occurred in the region of Abruzzo, in central Italy. The main shock occurred at 3:32 local time on 6 April 2009, and was rated 5.8 on the Richter scale and 6.3 on the moment magnitude scale; its epicentre was near L’Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo, which together with surrounding villages suffered most damage. There have been several thousand foreshocks and aftershocks since December 2008, more than thirty of which had a Richter magnitude greater than 3.5.
In a subsequent inquiry of the handling of the disaster, seven members of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were accused of giving “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors prior to the main quake. On 22 October 2012, six scientists and one ex-government official were convicted of multiple manslaughter for downplaying the likelihood of a major earthquake six days before it took place. They were each sentenced to six years’ imprisonment
On March 31 2009, there was a meeting in L’Aquila. of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks
According to Nature:
The now-famous commission meeting convened on the evening of 31 March in a local government office in L’Aquila. Boschi, who had travelled by car to the city with two other scientists, later called the circumstances “completely out of the ordinary”. Commission sessions are usually closed, so Boschi was surprised to see nearly a dozen local government officials and other non-scientists attending the brief, one-hour meeting, in which the six scientists assessed the swarms of tremors that had rattled the local population. When asked during the meeting if the current seismic swarm could be a precursor to a major quake like the one that levelled L’Aquila in 1703, Boschi said, according to the meeting minutes: “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.” The scientific message conveyed at the meeting was anything but reassuring, according to Selvaggi. “If you live in L’Aquila, even if there’s no swarm,” he says, “you can never say, ‘No problem.’ You can never say that in a high-risk region.” But there was minimal discussion of the vulnerability of local buildings, say prosecutors, or of what specific advice should be given to residents about what to do in the event of a major quake. Boschi himself, in a 2009 letter to civil-protection officials published in the Italian weekly news magazine L’Espresso, said: “actions to be undertaken were not even minimally discussed”.
Enzo Boschi was president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. Giulio Selvaggi was director of the National Earthquake Center. The Nature article goes on to say:
Many people in L’Aquila now view the meeting as essentially a public-relations event held to discredit the idea of reliable earthquake prediction (and, by implication, Giuliani) and thereby reassure local residents. Christian Del Pinto, a seismologist with the civil-protection department for the neighbouring region of Molise, sat in on part of the meeting and later told prosecutors in L’Aquila that the commission proceedings struck him as a “grotesque pantomine”. Even Boschi now says that “the point of the meeting was to calm the population. We [scientists] didn’t understand that until later on.”
What happened outside the meeting room may haunt the scientists, and perhaps the world of risk assessment, for many years. Two members of the commission, Barberi and De Bernardinis, along with mayor Cialente and an official from Abruzzo’s civil-protection department, held a press conference to discuss the findings of the meeting. In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L’Aquila was “certainly normal” and posed “no danger”, adding that “the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy”. When prompted by a journalist who said, “So we should have a nice glass of wine,” De Bernardinis replied “Absolutely”, and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.
On April 6, the earthquake struck, killing 309 people.
2. The Phone Call
One thing that is missing in much of the coverage in the U.S. press, is a phone call between Guido Bertolaso (Director of the Italy Civil Defense committee) and Daniela Stati (L’Aquila town councilor for civic protection). Bertolaso was already under investigation for other crimes so his phone was being tapped. The Italian Newspaper, La Repubblica, has the phone conversation on their website. The phone tap was ordered by the Italian Judiciary.
Luckily for me, my wife is from Italy and she has transcribed and translated the phone call. (Thanks Isa.) Here is her translation of the phone call and a few paragraphs from La Repubblica.
THE UNDERESTIMATED EARTHQUAKE
The true story of a mock meeting of the Commission for Major Risks set on March 30, 2009 during a phone conversation between Guido Bertolaso (GB) (Director of the Italy Civil Defense committee) and Daniela Stati (DS) (L’Aquila town councilor for civic protection) tapped under order of the Italian Judiciary Council.
GB This is Guido Bertolaso speaking.
DS Good evening. How are you doing?
GB Good — You’ll receive a phone call from De Bernardinis, my deputy. I asked him to call a meeting in L’Aquila about this issue of seismic clusters that is going on, so as to shut up, right away, any imbecile, to calm down conjectures, worries and so on.
DS Thank you Guido thank you so much.
GB But you have to tell everybody not to send out announcements claiming that no more tremors will occur. This is bullshit. Never say this type of things when speaking of quakes.
GB Somebody told me there has been an announcement claiming there will be no more tremors. But this is something that can never be said, Daniela, not even under torture.
DS Oh I’m sorry Guido, I did not know, I’m just out from a meeting.
GB Never mind, do not worry. But you have to make sure that any announcement goes first by my press office. They [my press office] have expertise on communicating emergency information. They know how to act to avoid any boomerang effect. You know, if there is another tremor in two hours, what are we going to say? Quakes are a mine field.
DS I’ll call them right away.
GB We have got to be very very prudent. Anyway we’ll fix this issue. Tomorrow is very important. De Bernardinis will call you to decide where to set this meeting. I will not be there, but I’ll send Zamberletti, Barberi, Bosci, you know the leading lights of Italian quakes. I’ll send them to the prefect’s office or to your office. You guys decide where, I do not give a shit. This needs to be a public relations event. Do you get it?
DS Yes, yes.
GB So they, the best seismology experts, will say: “This is normal, these phenomena happen. It is better to have 100 level 4 Richter scale tremors rather than nothing. Because 100 tremors are useful for dispersing energy, so there will never be the dangerous quake. Do you understand?
DS All right. I will try to stop that announcement.
GB No, no. It has been done already. My people are covering this. Just talk with De Bernardinis and plan this meeting, and also announce it. We are doing this not because we are worried, but because we want to reassure people. So instead of you and me having a conversation, the best seismology scientists will talk tomorrow.
DS Everything will be all right.
3. My Assessment
Telling people there is no danger, is not the same as failing to predict the earthquake. There was clearly a failure to communicate the risks to the public. And saying that the swarm of tremors reduced the risk seems blatantly misleading. Government officials pressured the scientists into playing down the risks. The scientists were used by impatient and dishonest bureaucrats.
I don’t think it makes sense to prosecute these guys. The bottom line is that earthquake prediction is difficult, everyone knows this, and L’Aquila is known to be in a seismically active area. It’s not like the seismologists actually knew there would be an earthquake and decided to keep it secret. Based on the available information, they presumably did believe that the probability of a big earthquake was low.
They may have mishandled the communication of risk, some of them more than others, but this hardly deserves criminal prosecution and six years of imprisonment.
On the other hand, the government officials who pressured people to play down the risks and who seemed to have no interest in honestly investigating the situation are perhaps more culpable.
As they said in the Corriere della Sera on Oct 24 2012:
The conviction of multiple manslaughter of the seven members of the Italian committee Great Risks is, whether we like it or not, a political sentence. In any other country, where expertise is judged with scientific criteria, politicians would have borne the accountability of their shortcomings.
So the real story of L’Aquila, is the government using scientists as scapegoats.
The victims of the earthquake were also victims of poor treatment from the Berlusconi government. From Wikipedia:
Around 40,000 people who were made homeless by the earthquake found accommodation in tented camps and a further 10,000 were housed in hotels on the coast. Others sought shelter with friends and relatives throughout Italy. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi caused a controversy when he said, in an interview to the German station n-tv, that the homeless victims should consider themselves to be on a “camping weekend” – “They have everything they need, they have medical care, hot food… Of course, their current lodgings are a bit temporary. But they should see it like a weekend of camping.” To clarify his thought, he also told the people in a homeless camp: “Head to the beach. It’s Easter. Take a break. We’re paying for it, you’ll be well looked after.”