The Amatrice earthquake and the hand of the mafia

The lessons of L’Aquila and of Amatrice and of the next one (for there will be a next one) is that Italy’s endemic corruption doesn’t just cost the state, it kills the innocent. The hand of the mafia in fraudulent construction projects is there for all to see

What used to be a church in Amatrice, Italy
Tim Hedges
On 1 September 2016 06:04

I knew immediately that it was an earthquake which had woken me up, though I had never been in one before. Apart from the physical shaking there was a sense of unreality, just for a few seconds, as if what was going on was contrary to the laws of nature. Then it was over.

Over, at least, in this part of Umbria, 60 miles from the epicentre, in a house with seismic protection. For others, particularly Amatrice, it was different. In that small, ancient, hilltop town there was devastation.

Amatrice sits on top of a tall hill, some 3,000 feet above sea level; twice as high as the tallest village in England, inaccessible with its winding, unmade roads. Yet the rescue services were there while it was still dark. As we near the closing stages of this tragedy the one thing everyone is agreed on is that the civil protection teams have been both heroic and effective. As to the rest, the inquiries have begun.

Comparisons with the earthquake in L’Aquila on 6th April, 2009 are inevitable. It is only around 20 miles south of Amatrice, the earthquake strength was around the same, and the death toll around the same. Could either tragedy have been foreseen?

On 27th March, 2009 Giampaolo Giuliani, a junior technician at a seismology laboratory, predicted an earthquake in L’Aquila. He had built a radon detection device and surmised that increased levels of radon meant that tectonic plates were moving, thus an earthquake. There was indeed a minor ‘quake in L’Aquila that night.

Unfortunately, Giuliani’s second prediction, that that there would be a major ‘quake in Sulmona, 30 miles south of L’Aquila, on 29th March, was not fulfilled. Many people left their houses in panic and the disgraced Giuliani was issued with an injunction to make no further public predictions.

Then on 6th April L’Aquila was destroyed. Nobody knows whether Giuliani was on to something or whether he was a lucky amateur. But his test, if it worked, would only give a couple of days’ notice since the radioactiviy, by which it is detected, has a short half-life. Public suspicion was such that the entire regional seismic department was placed under house arrest and only released after international outcry.

Earthquakes cannot be predicted. That is the official line. We do know, however, that some regions are liable to earthquakes and that the Appenine region of central Italy is one of them. But where will the next ‘quake hit? It is home to millions of people. California is also an earthquake zone, with its San Andreas fault, but people still buy property there.

What is certain is that in areas known to be high risk the building regulations can be changed. In our area of Umbria you have to incorporate seismic protection with any major building works, and of course public buildings have to have protection. Yet the Henniker-Gotleys had a lot of work done to their house outside Amatrice and it collapsed, killing them.

Of more concern is the school at Amatrice. Following recent (gentle) seismic activity a contract for some €750,000 was let in 2012 for the strengthening of the school. Yet it collapsed in the earthquake. Police have seized a TV news video which claims to show polystyrene in the cement. Furthermore the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano claims the company which did the work has links to the Sicilian mafia and that it has evidence of a bribe of €190,000 in respect of the contract.

In L’Aquila it was thought that one or more of the various mafias had supplied sea sand for the concrete. The effect of this cheaper addition is that the building appears fine for years, perhaps for the seven-year statute of limitations after which you cannot be prosecuted, but slowly the salt in the sand eats through the reinforcement and the building can be felled by a minor shock.

Yes, it is difficult with millions of tiny, ancient homes in the earthquake zone. Yes, the science has been at fault, until recently allowing concrete roofing whereas the more flexible wooden beams are safer in a ‘quake.

But finally, the lessons of L’Aquila and of Amatrice and of the next one (for there will be a next one) is that Italy’s endemic corruption doesn’t just cost the state, it kills the innocent.

Restaurateurs are giving €2 to charity for every Amatriciana pasta served; museums are giving up their entry fees,. Meanwhile, we should all reflect that the mafia simply doesn’t give a damn.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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