Italy quake highlights need to educate the public, says expert

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
Ruins of the destroyed Clock Tower after an earthquake in northern Italy
Ruins of the destroyed Clock Tower after an earthquake in northern Italy
AFP/Getty Images

Geneva, 21 May 2012 – Following a 6.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked north-east Italy on Sunday morning, around 3,000 residents of San Felipe and surrounding areas are living “like refugees” advised not to re-enter their homes by the Italian civil protection service because of ongoing aftershocks.

UNISDR Chief, Margareta Wahlström, today extended her condolences to those who lost loved ones and said: “This tragedy underlines once again how vulnerable many parts of the world are to earthquakes. The loss of lives and livelihoods which flow from these events must encourage us to ensure that risk assessments are acted on and that the public is well educated on the realities of living in earthquake zones which regularly produce the largest loss of life and largest economic losses of any natural hazard.”

Since the primary earthquake struck around 4 a.m. yesterday, there have been over 20 aftershocks of varying strengths, according to Doriano Castaldini, a Professor of Physical Geography and Geomorphology at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, and a local expert on earthquakes living in San Felipe, one of the earthquake-struck villages. Prof. Castaldini is now himself an evacuee.

The earthquake reportedly killed seven people, injured dozens and damaged several buildings, including historic churches, bell towers and a medieval castle, prompting Prime Minister Mario Monti to return early from a NATO summit in Chicago.

Economic losses included the destruction of a ceramics factory in the town of Sant’Agostino di Ferrara where two workers died. Another factory is reported to have collapsed in the town of Ponte Rodoni di Bondeno. The earthquake also destroyed 300,000 wheels of Parmesan and Gran Padano cheese worth an estimated €200 million.

Speaking to UNISDR today, Prof. Castaldini said it was one of the largest recorded earthquakes to occur in the region since Ferrara in 1570. “We were woken up in the morning, at 4 o’clock. We were instructed to leave our homes. The residents of San Felipe are forbidden to go inside their homes up to now. Everybody is a refugee,” he said.

He explained that aftershocks must stop or at least lessen in frequency and strength before civil protection authorities can survey the town’s buildings and give the all-clear. Like many other residents, Dr. Castaldini spent the night with relatives in a nearby area. People without that option slept in tents provided by the civil protection agency.

He praised the after-quake response of public authorities, saying the civil protection agency was working well with the Red Cross, local police and fire brigade to handle public safety. But the response crew found themselves facing a big challenge: how to combat false rumors circulating among a public that is lacking in knowledge about earthquakes.

“At 6 o’clock in the morning, less than 2 hours after the main earthquake, a resident began spreading the rumour that a stronger earthquake would hit at 6:15 am. Some people believed him, despite the fact that it is not possible to forecast earthquakes. I immediately met with representatives of the police to devise a plan to stop residents from raising false alarms. We had to make clear that it’s not possible to foresee earthquakes before they happen,” he said.

He recalled that a similar occurrence took place in the region of Verona and Mantova in January, when a man sent text messages predicting an earthquake at midday, interrupting a busy work day and causing people to evacuate schools and public buildings.

“The body of knowledge is very low in this culture. I would urge policy makers to push for education on hazards to begin at primary school, starting with lessons made by experts and for leaflets to be made and disseminated. There are many people who are trying to do this in Italy, for instance, through the Internet, but unfortunately, knowledge about earthquakes and hazards in general is still very low,” said Dr. Castaldini.

“As a geologist and a local expert, I get calls from newspapers asking me if there is a connection between earthquakes and the weather. I cooperate with the Council of Europe on a project called Safe Net. We are planning to organize a talk on natural and tech hazard, trying to involve teachers to provide material on the web that they can take and use for teaching.”

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