Monday, August 29, 2016

The Global Lessons of Italy’s Earthquake

Neglected ancient buildings, no matter how admired, do fall down and kill people. The 6.2-magnitude earthquake that hit Italy last Wednesday has again reminded us of our powerlessness against nature’s fury. On Friday Italian authorities reported that more than 250 people had died and many more were hospitalized.
Yet while tragic, the shake was neither apocalyptic nor cataclysmic. Earthquakes of this size occur several times a month around the world. Scientists, engineers and officials need to study this earthquake carefully to understand why a serious but not unprecedented geological event caused such loss of life and property.
The main thing that has gone wrong in Italy—and in other places—is the failure to adequately protect older structures against earthquake threats. This isn’t for lack of engineering knowledge. Most European countries, including Italy, use the earthquake building code known as Eurocode 8, which requires engineers to design buildings to avoid collapse even when damaged beyond repair.
This standard worked last week in the buildings that followed it. The shaking on Wednesday was felt as far as Bologna 155 miles away, but it hardly affected the country’s infrastructure or urban centers. The majority of the victims Wednesday were trapped in collapsed old buildings, constructed more than a century ago and never retrofitted.
Technology now exists to make even these buildings safer. The problems are educating residents to take action to protect their homes; reducing corruption in implementing repairs on public buildings; and setting societal priorities to invest in retrofits.
The biggest problem is that retrofit plans are often evaluated based on fanciful but expensive assessments of the severity of the shaking that may affect an area, communicated in hazard maps. The veracity of these is impossible to confirm before an earthquake happens, but they can lull decision-makers into a false sense of security. In this case, as is typical for hazard maps, shaking exceeded the mapped values.
There are often fewer than a handful of events known to have affected an area in recorded history. If only small earthquakes have struck, it’s tempting to discount the possibility of a more serious event. The likelihood of an earthquake of the severity of the one that struck Japan in March 2011 had been grossly underestimated based on faulty assessments.
In the past year or so, techniques have emerged to estimate how well earthquake hazard maps perform. It is important to remind the public of the huge uncertainties involved, and to make decisions on which buildings to retrofit based on the imagined probability of a particular earthquake striking, as well as the potential cost in lives if catastrophe strikes. It is more prudent to plan based on realistic worst-case scenarios than on probabilities that these scenarios may happen.
Italy, like many countries, needs to do better on building safety. But last week’s tragedy also highlighted considerable Italian successes, particularly in civil protection after a natural disaster. Solid planning and an efficient multi-agency response system meant that within 24 hours of the earthquake, the government deployed more than 5,000 people, including more than 1,000 firefighters, 1,000 police, 400 soldiers and an impressive 3,000 volunteers, including from the Italian Red Cross.
In addition to conducting search and rescue in the rubble of what used to be picturesque villages and small towns, these rapid responders have established disaster shelters for more than 3,000 evacuees. There’s still some room for improvement. For instance, tent camps are preferable to solid structures in earthquake response because of aftershocks, but they require considerably more logistical support, as tents, toilets, showers, furniture and appliances need to be transported to the camp site. But overall this rapid mobilization has saved lives.
Around the world, early warning systems, innovative hazard-mitigation measures and advances in emergency management have made disasters less deadly. Yet the cost of natural disasters is rising sharply, as more of the world’s economic activity is concentrated in disaster-prone areas. Developing countries are disproportionately affected by natural disasters, but this Italian earthquake shows that even nations with sophisticated disaster preparedness and world-class building codes need to realize that much more work remains to be done.
Mr. Synolakis is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Southern California. Mr. Karagiannis is a researcher on emergency management at the Technical University of Crete.
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