Italy’s Earthquakes Could Kill Children in Biblical Numbers

Everyone’s afraid, but here’s the real scandal: Ninety percent of Italy’s schools are not earthquake-proof, and so far nothing’s been done about it.

11.04.16 5:02 AM ET

ROME — It is a terrifying sensation when your home starts to shake and your furniture starts to shimmy—especially when you don’t consider your address to be in a high-risk seismic zone. But for the last three months, starting on August 24 and ending, oh, at 1:38 am Thursday morning, that’s exactly what has been happening to residents in many areas of Italy, including Rome, where swinging chandeliers and sliding furniture have become all too common.

And even though there is ample evidence of increased seismic activity, including widening cracks in the Roman Colosseum and frightening fractures in some of the capital’s churches and bridges—not to mention the complete or partial destruction of 200 communities in central Italy—the nation has long been in denial. It has focused on repairing destroyed villages on the country’s major fault lines rather than investing in anti-seismic measures that could actually keep buildings standing and save lives.

A report by Legambiente on Thursday points to a terrifying statistic. More than 90 percent of Italian schools have “not been built with modern anti-seismic criteria.” Only a little over half of those were built before 1974, after which the law stated that schools, at the very least, had to be earthquake proof. But that was just on paper. Those constructed later apparently were built without concern for safety.

In example after example, including a school that was destroyed in Amatrice in the August 2016 quake that killed nearly 300 people, building regulations for renovations which require anti-seismic measures to be installed were blatantly ignored thanks largely to organized crime and corruption. Contractors signed documents saying they had complied with anti-seismic measures without actually installing them.

To be fair, Italy does rank fifth in the world (after Japan, China, Russia and the United States) for the number of what are called “seismic isolated structures” per population base, according to ENEA, the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development.

These structures have reinforced basements and systems that absorb seismic shock so the buildings won’t crumble. But the same agency says that, even so, “over 70 percent of the buildings in Italy wouldn’t withstand the earthquakes that can hit them, including schools, hospitals and other strategic structures.”

Paolo Clemente, a researcher at ENEA, says that when constructing new buildings it generally doesn’t cost any extra to install seismic isolation systems. But it is far more difficult to install them on existing structures, which is why so many buildings were destroyed in Italy’s recent spate of quakes.

“The application of anti-seismic systems to existing buildings is not always possible, due to technical reasons, like the possibility of carrying out safe interventions at the base of the building, proximity of other buildings and economic reasons,” he says.

Finally, those excuses might be a thing of the past.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced that his government had the funds to rebuild the affected areas destroyed in the last three months and that budgetary constraints set forth by the European Union would not stand in the way of safety. “It’s unthinkable that schools should collapse for European stability,” he said in Milan on Thursday.

He also said that Italy must start thinking about “prevention” when it comes to earthquake damage, which is something the country has clearly neglected despite devastating earthquakes that killed thousands over the last half century, including one near Naples in 1982 that killed nearly 3,000 people. In introducing a project called “Casa Italia” or “House Italy” he said that the country “must have a structure that deals with prevention.”

One might think that, in a country as seismic as Italy, which sits on the juncture of two tectonic plates, this approach to engineering and architecture would already exist. Apparently, it does not. “For decades, Italy has not thought about the future,” he said. “We are very good in emergencies, but now we need a plan that, in the space of a few generations, we will make the country secure.”

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Italy’s Transport and Infrasructure minister, Graziano Delrio, agrees. He estimates that if Italy would spend between €4 to €7 billion a year, it could handle both reconstruction and making all Italian public buildings, starting with schools and hospitals, seismic proof.

Hotels and cultural heritage sites are often already in compliance due to private funding and patrimony protection monies. Private owners and condominium managers would have to foot the bill for their own seismic readiness. For private housing, “a lot of money is needed because we have not invested much in prevention,” Renzi told RAI news. “Instead we must spend money on preventing catastrophic events like we have just seen.”

All of that, of course, will take time, which may not be on Italy’s side.

During the seismic events of the last seven days, more than 230 square miles of terrain have been drastically changed, some large swaths of land falling more than 28 inches, splitting roads, towns and mountainsides in half, according to Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV). There have been more than 2,000 aftershocks over 2.0 magnitude since the last major earthquake activity started on October 26.

Experts can’t predict whether this is the end or the beginning of a swarm of earthquake activity, but they warn that the big one might yet strike. If it does, of course, planned prevention won’t help at all. But if the earth suddenly calms down again, let’s hope the plans to be ready for the next one start in earnest before it’s once again “too late.”