Deja vu damage scenario in Italy quakes

Associated Press
Italian firefighters carry the body of a worker who died in a factory collapse in Medolla, Italy, Wednesday, May 30, 2012. A magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck Tuesday that felled old buildings as well as new factories and warehouses in a swath of Italy north of Bologna. The quake, which followed a May 20 magnitude-6.0 quake in the same area, dealt another blow to one of the country's most productive regions at a time when Italy is struggling to restart its economy. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
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ROME (AP) — Earthquakes in Italy, like the twin temblors that claimed 24 lives this month in northern Italy, trigger a sense of terror and dread but also deja vu.

Again and again, buildings both ancient and new cave in or topple when rocked by quakes that, while strong, aren't so powerful that they should devastate structures built to meet seismic-safety standards or retrofitted to render them resilient, especially in a relatively affluent country like Italy, one of the most-earthquake prone places in the world.

That's precisely the problem, geologists and engineers said Wednesday, a day after a 5.8 magnitude quake collapsed churches, factories, apartment houses and barns in the Emilia Romagna area north of Bologna. As a 2008 report by geologists and civil protection experts found, the vast majority of buildings still don't meet modern seismic safety standards.

Many of the victims in Tuesday's quake, as well as in a more powerful 6.0 temblor in practically the same area on May 20, were workers crushed in the rubble of relatively new warehouses or factories dotting the countryside of one of Italy's most industrially and agriculturally productive regions.

The body of the 17th and last victim in Tuesday's quake was removed from a factory's rubble on Wednesday in the town of Medolla. Three other workers died in the same collapse.

In 2009, when a 6.3 magnitude temblor rocked the central mountain town of L'Aquila, apartment houses pancaked, church steeples topped, a college dormitory crumbled and a hospital was left largely unusable. Even the government headquarters that should have been helping to coordinate rescue efforts fell down.

"We're seeing the same movie over and over again," said geologist Gian Vito Graziano, who is president of Italy's National Geologists Council.

In Japan last week, a 6.1 magnitude struck but did no significant damage, he noted. By way of comparison, in the Emilia Romagna quakes packing lesser punch, roofs and walls of modern factories and warehouses as well as ancient churches caved in.

The quake "danger had been underestimated," Graziano said in a phone interview. "That the (ancient) towers fell, you can in some way understand," but the modern structures should not have collapsed, "absolutely not," he added.

The college dormitory in L'Aquila, for example, was only a few decades old. And the hospital, rendered unsafe by the 2009 quake, had been built after Italy adopted more stringent construction standards for quake-prone areas following the deadly 1980 temblor that hit Naples.

Another quake disaster, the collapse of a school in southern Puglia in 2002, also led to tighter building rules. Investigators examining that wreckage alleged that shoddy construction factored in the tragedy, which claimed 28 lives, including a small town's entire first grade.

But Graziano said he didn't think cheap construction techniques were factors in most of Italy's quake disasters, including in Emilia Romagna.

Rather, builders might not have been aware of the "amplifying effect" that the sandy soil not far under the surface might have had on the quake's effect along the fault line as it nears the earth's crust, he said. In some towns, a sandy muck oozed out of quake-caused fissures in the streets.

Another geologist, Vittorio d'Oriano, said he subscribes to the school of thought that just about all of Italy is at high risk for quakes.

"There is a strong debate: Is all of Italy at risk, more or less at risk?" d'Oriano said. Or are some parts, like Emilia Romagna was thought to be before these two quakes, of "low-medium risk?" This month's tragedy proves that the latter thinking "was an error," he said.

Another mistake, d'Oriano said, is thinking that anti-seismic measures add onerously to building costs. "At most, this costs an additional 5 to 10 percent," said d'Oriano, who is based in Florence, Tuscany, a high-risk zone where builders now routine employ anti-seismic measures.

He noted that while such measures for modern construction are not that costly, their price rises steeply when shoring up ancient monuments.

Although corruption could affect the quality of materials used in public buildings by constructors who won bids, d'Oriano contended it was virtually "unthinkable" that private constructors, like those of the industrial buildings which collapsed in Emilia Romagna, would resort to corruption. "In the private sector, it's extremely rare," he said.

As in the 2008 report, geologists this week noted that the country lags far behind industrial nations in applying anti-seismic techniques to construction in quake-vulnerable areas.

Retrofitting, for example, generally "hasn't been done," despite a recommendation by the geologists' council, Graziano said, that all buildings be checked for quake-survivability. "Public buildings, like schools, have started doing it, but they are doing it slowly for lack of funds."

Italy's economic crisis has slashed funding in general, but Graziano contended that Italians' fatalism, not funding shortalls, is the real problem.

"We have an extraordinary capacity to react immediately, a second after," natural disasters, the geologist said, citing the "mud angels" who rushed into places like Genoa last year to help when flooding ravaged the city, or in Florence in 1966, when the Arno river overran its banks. "But as soon as the emergency is over, we forget it."

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