Italian Architecture Vulnerable To Earthquakes
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Survivors of this past week's devastating earthquake in Italy's central Abruzzi region are celebrating a solemn Easter today, as they continue to mourn nearly 300 victims. The country is prone to earthquakes. It has two active volcanoes. And it straddles two fault lines, which raises the question, why do so many of the country's buildings seem to shatter when the earth trembles?
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this letter from Italy.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: It was Italian President Giorgio Napolitano who gave voice to the anguish and anger of the tens of thousands of now homeless residents, when he lamented what he called widespread irresponsibility in building construction. Rescue workers digging through the rubble reported that some of the reinforced concrete pillars of collapsed modern buildings seem to have been made of sand. The ancient Romans would shudder. They used high-quality mortar and stone to build monuments like the Coliseum and Pantheon that have withstood many earthquakes and are still standing after nearly 2,000 years.
According to the National Institute of Geophysics, almost half of Italian territory is considered at high-risk for earthquakes. But a 2008 report by the group said only 14 percent of buildings in that vulnerable area meet seismic safety standards. Leading geologist and disaster expert, Franco Barberi, said that if this had happened in California, no one would've died.
Following several major earthquakes of the last three decades, Italian lawmakers have gradually toughened the building code for earthquake zones. But its official enforcement has been postponed year after year, most recently, two weeks ago. The constant delays are attributed to strong opposition from the powerful builder's lobby. In addition, Italy does not have any regulations on retrofitting older buildings for seismic safety, which leaves its immense architectural heritage at risk.
According to the National Restoration Institute, more than 100,000 artistic monuments, such as churches, monasteries, fortresses and villas, are vulnerable to collapse. In contrast to other western countries, insurance policies against natural disasters, or what are known as acts of God, are not required by Italian law. Such policies are very unpopular because they're seen as bringing bad luck among a population that does not hide its superstitious streak.
The result: in the last quarter century, the Italian state has spent about $80 billion in post-earthquake reconstruction. Civil engineering officials say preventive measures would have cost a fraction of that. And now there's the post-earthquake speculation menace, that organized crime could move in, as it did after the 1980 earthquake in the Naples region. At that time, Mafia-controlled businesses milked the state of public funds by fraudulently multiplying the original 36 quake-devastated municipalities into nearly 700.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.