Italy judge says deadly L'Aquila quake was foreseeable

May 16, 2013
Buildings in Onna, Italy, that were damaged in the 2009 earthquake, seen on October 22, 2012. A deadly earthquake in the Italian town of L'Aquila in 2009 which killed 309 people "was not unforeseeable", a judge said Thursday, reigniting a heated scientific debate over whether experts should have warned the population beforehand.

A deadly earthquake in the Italian town of L'Aquila in 2009 which killed 309 people "was not unforeseeable", a judge said Thursday, reigniting a heated scientific debate over whether experts should have warned the population beforehand.

"It was an earthquake which was by no means exceptional for L'Aquila and absolutely in line with the area's ," Judge Giuseppe Grieco said in a legal summary released three months after a trial into the collapse of a student residence that killed eight people.

Three Italian builders were found guilty in February of multiple after carrying out on the student housing that was found to have weakened it further. Also, a technician was sentenced to jail for having declared the building safe shortly before the quake.

Grieco said that strong earthquakes in the area were known to have taken place "around every 325 years from the year 1000," and therefore "it was not unforeseeable."

In October last year, six Italian scientists and a were sentenced to six years in jail for underestimating the risks of the killer quake and failing to alert the population.

The sentence has been suspended as the seven appeal the verdict.

All seven were members of the Major Risks Committee which met in L'Aquila on March 31, 2009—six days before the quake devastated the region, leaving thousands of people homeless.

It met after a series of small tremors in the preceding weeks had sown panic among local inhabitants but gave press interviews saying the in L'Aquila posed "no danger".

Survivors said many locals had been falsely reassured and stayed indoors when the first hit, sharply raising the number of causalities.

Enzo Boschi, a committee member and head of Italy's national geophysics institute (INGV) at the time, insisted Thursday that it was not possible to forecast earthquakes.

"No-one has ever so far been able to foresee earthquakes. What it is possible to do, and what developed countries do, is make buildings safer to reduce damage as much as possible," he said.

Critics have long lamented a lack of control on the quality of construction in Italy and the European centre for research in engineering warned following the quake that 80,000 public buildings in the country were unsafe.

The ruling sparked outrage in the international scientific community, with some likening it to the persecution of Galileo, while others warned it could put experts off advisory roles to the state.

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Lurker2358
3.2 / 5 (9) May 16, 2013
Grieco said that strong earthquakes in the area were known to have taken place "around every 325 years from the year 1000," and therefore "it was not unforeseeable."


So the Italian government now qualifies as the dumbest government on the face of the planet?

Are we unanimous on that just yet?

Seriously, who does jail time for failing to predict a 1 in 325 year event?!

Further, restoration work on residential construction is usually cosmetic. It seems highly unlikely that anything a contractor did would have weakened a house or apartment.

This entire case looks like activism and frivolous lawsuits gone to the most extreme, and the Italian people should be ashamed of this idiocy.
Sean_W
3.3 / 5 (7) May 16, 2013
Saying previous quakes don't represent a danger is not the same thing as saying "hey, if an earthquake hits don't worry; stay inside."

If predicting earthquakes is as easy as the judge thinks then why didn't he do it. Throw him in jail. He must know how to do it if he thinks it's so simple. Take home message: geologists should stay out of Italy.

And for those who blame the experts for giving false reassurance, maybe it would be fair to tell us how severe the punishment would have been if they had allowed the panic to continue when they thought there was no need of it so that people left their houses to looters and then the quake hadn't happened. If people are going to gamble with their careers and criminal records they deserve to know about it and understand the odds and payoffs.
Sean_W
2 / 5 (4) May 16, 2013
Grieco said that strong earthquakes in the area were known to have taken place "around every 325 years from the year 1000," and therefore "it was not unforeseeable."


So the Italian government now qualifies as the dumbest government on the face of the planet?

That's an awfully tight competition but they are definitely in the semi finals.
Ophelia
3 / 5 (2) May 16, 2013
I think the judge is being misunderstood by the posters above. Note that he wasn't saying that the hour and date of the quake should have been predicted. He essentially said, "hey, this place has earthquakes. Everyone knows that. Build the damn building so it won't fall down when they occur - whether tomorrow or 50 years from now. If you aren't going to do that, Mr. Builder, you are going to be held responsible."

The judge spoke of "foreseeable" not "forecastable". This is why California has changed its building codes: It is foreseeable that big earthquakes will occur sometime in the future, even if they can't be forecast within decades.

This is NOT the same type of malfeasance as what the Italian scientists were accused of committing.
Sean_W
2.3 / 5 (3) May 16, 2013
But they were not asked if a big earthquake could happen, they were asked, effectively, if the panic going on was appropriate given what they knew. They said no and were right to do so because they had no reason to think otherwise.
Ophelia
3 / 5 (2) May 16, 2013
@Sean_W
First, I think the scientists got screwed. But that situation isn't as clear-cut as you seem to imply from what I've read. As I recall, they gave their comments - which didn't exactly downplay the likelihood of a quake occurring - to a PR guy who did publicly issued comments downplaying that likelihood - and then none of the scientists corrected him. I just think its bogus to think that anyone would have left the town. You can hardly ever get anyone to evacuate anything as it is. And if they don't know enough to get outside or to stand in doorways or to take any of the standard preventative measures how likely is it that any warning would have made any difference?

But again, that is completely different from whether a builder has an obligation to construct something that will withstand a quake at some unforeseen, but possible, date down the road or whether they are negligent for weakening a structure against earthquakes in an earthquake prone region.
KingDWS
5 / 5 (2) May 16, 2013
Does anyone believe that if someone had spoken up and said there will be an earthquake today that people would have listened and fewer actually evacuated? Look at the behaviour around the incoming paths of hurricanes, you see hurricane parties. And for thwse there is 100% proof of its existence. Yet you still get the "it's only a breeze...."

In theory there is a overdue 9 plus event for the pacific northwest anytime now but you don't see any panic announcements just a lot of indifference. Yet when it happens I doubt anyone will go to jail as a result. This is just a slight injustice for the people who tried to warn about this event.