Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Italy earthquake throws spotlight on lax construction laws

Death toll will be far higher than it should be in a country of Italy’s wealth but much lower than if quake had struck during day, writes John Hooper

Rescue workers at the scene of the earthquake in central Italy. Photograph: Remo Casilli/Reuters
The death toll from the earthquake that hit Amatrice and other villages in central Italy is rising at an alarming rate. But so far it looks as if the number of fatalities will be substantially lower than when an earthquake of comparable force hit the nearby city of L’Aquila in 2009, killing 309 people.
The casualty tally will nevertheless be far higher than it should be in a country of Italy’s wealth – but much lower than it might have been. The 6.2-magnitude earthquake, like the one that devastated L’Aquila, struck at night.
Had people been at work, in shops or at school, the outcome would have been much worse. Two years ago, Gian Vito Graziano, president of Italy’s National Council of Geologists, said that according to some estimates, if the L’Aquila earthquake had struck when students were in their classrooms, “the number of victims would have been thousands, not hundreds”.

He was speaking next to a student residence in L’Aquila that collapsed, taking the lives of seven young people. The meeting Graziano was attending warned that risk to life from earthquakes in Italy had actually risen since the L’Aquila disaster.
In 2003, after a school collapsed in Puglia, a survey was ordered of all the public buildings in areas of high seismic risk. Among those singled out was the student residence in L’Aquila. A plan was drawn up to make it safe at a cost of almost €1.5m (£1.28m).
The money was never spent. Or at least not on the securing the residence.
In this respect, however, Italian officialdom reflects the values of society, in particular Italians’ generalised contempt for rules of any kind, and the prevalence of lazy officials and apathetic, or even corrupt, politicians.
The reason why so many buildings fall down in earthquakes is that many were put up without planning consent and the structural guarantees that normally accompany it. According to the government statistics office, unlawful construction in Italy is of “dimensions unparalleled in other advanced economies”.
The latest estimate, for 2014, is that 18% of buildings are erected without permission. The figure for extensions and other “improvements” is doubtless much higher. They are traditionally carried out at this time of year when there are fewer people around to ask awkward questions.
Ideally, Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, would seize on this disaster to bring about real change with draconian new sanctions. But he is in no position to court unpopularity.
Later this year, he faces a referendum on constitutional reform that is as potentially toxic for him as the Brexit vote was for David Cameron. By announcing he will resign if he fails to win, Renzi has unwisely turned the ballot into an opportunity for disgruntled voters to register a protest. And with the Italian economy yet again at a standstill, their numbers are growing.
By the dismal standards of Italy’s record in coping with the aftermath of earthquakes, Silvio Berlusconi, Renzi’s predecessor-but-two, did reasonably well. He responded to the 2009 disaster by ordering purpose-built, miniature new towns for the homeless and then stunned the world, including his own compatriots, by switching that year’s G8 meeting, which Italy was to host, to L’Aquila.
His decision created a deadline to meet and a justification for cutting through red tape. But some of the houses have proved to be pretty ropey, and are now the subject of legal proceedings. Only in the last couple of years has work got underway on reconstructing the city’s devastated centre.
Renzi, another born showman, will be tempted to go for a similarly flashy fix that might prove ultimately superficial.
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