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Disaster Reveals Italy’s Lack Of Quake-Proof Architecture

April 8, 2009

The devastating earthquakes in central Italy this week have tragically revealed the architectural vulnerability of many of its buildings.  Though Italy is home to some of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions, experts in earthquake safety say that most of its buildings are lagging far behind modern safety standards.

Entire cities were leveled on Monday and local authorities were rendered powerless to help their citizens as apartment buildings, hospitals, hotels, schools and even government buildings crumbled during the more than thirty-second long tremors.

Officials are currently reporting more than 250 deaths in the earthquake that struck in the early hours of Monday morning and registered a hefty 6.3 on the Richter magnitude scale.

“Effectively, an earthquake of this magnitude, assuming adequate construction, would spark fear, cause problems, but wouldn’t provoke collapse,” said Enzo Boschi of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology on Tuesday during an interview on a state radio program.

According to a 2008 report issued by Boschi and his colleagues, almost half of Italy is designated “dangerous” in regards to the levels of seismic activity, yet less than 15% of the buildings in its most dangerous areas are up to par with modern earthquake safety standards.

The relatively new university dormitory in L’Aquila, for example, was one of the most devastated structures in the city.  Several students have been confirmed dead and several are still reported missing as rescuers continue to search through the rubble of the collapsed building.

L’Aquila’s hospital, instead of being used as a treatment center for the hundreds of victims, had to be evacuated and shut down as experts declared it structurally unstable as a result of the quake.

The well-known Rome-based architect Paolo Rocchi has called the partial collapse of the 15-year old hospital in L’Aquila “absurd.” The earthquake, though serious, was not “hyper-destructive”, according to Rocchi, alluding to the idea that a building as modern as the hospital should have been able to withstand an earthquake like the one on Monday.

In an interview the II Sole 24 business newspaper, Rocchi told reporters that the L’Aquila hospital should have been built in accordance with modern safety standards, especially given Italy’s earthquake-prone history and the example of the tremors that rocked Naples in1980.

Though no investigation into the collapse of the hospital has yet been carried out, Rocchi suggests the possibility that high quality building materials, such as top-grade concrete and reinforcing rods, may not have been used in the construction of the hospital.

In the past, Italian courts have convicted construction project managers for using slip-shod building techniques and sub-standard materials that subsequently played a role in collapsed buildings and numerous deaths.

Last year’s report by Boschi and his colleagues tried to shed light on the shabby state of preemptive safety standards employed in Italy when compared with other well-developed countries.  The report stated pointedly: “Even though we’ve always known that our country is highly seismic, classification (of at-risk areas) and anti-seismic measures were introduced with very grave delay.”

“It’s not in our culture to construct buildings the right way in a quake zone ““ that is, to build buildings that can resist (earthquakes) and retrofit old ones.  This has never been done,” said a sullen Boschi.

Giorgio Croci, an expert in ancient architecture, says that there are so many ancient Roman ruins still standing in Italy today because Romans architects preferred to build massive stable structures and used only the best quality building materials. Croci contrasts this with the style that medieval builders adopted when money was tight and they started erecting smaller buildings made with lower quality supplies.

“But today you can improve such buildings,” Croci said in a phone interview, referring to modern updating techniques that allow those old buildings to be made more stable.  Such techniques include connecting walls with chains that reduce their bouncing during tremors, or using heavy-duty iron hooks to connects wooden beams tightly to walls.

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