Amanda Ripley

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Italy’s Earthquakes

7th Apr 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

Today’s New York Times claimed that the intensity of yesterday’s 6.3 magnitude earthquake was “rare” for Italy. Um, really? What is rare in earthquake terms?

In the last century, over 130,000 people died in Italian earthquakes. Just seven years ago, 30 people died in a 5.9 quake in southern Italy. Rare?

We tend to think in human time. To make matters worse, human time has been getting faster ever since media deadlines reached warp speed. So for us, rare means not yesterday…or the day before. But that’s no way to talk about tectonic plates. Two major fault lines carve through Italy, one going west to east and the other running north to south. It is one of the most seismically active places on Earth.

The problem with thinking about earthquakes the way we think about fashion cycles is that we can talk ourselves out of planning for them. We can convince ourselves they are random tragedies no one could have avoided.

This earthquake did not need to be as destructive as it was. Make no mistake. “In California, an earthquake like this one would not have killed a single person,”  Franco Barberi, who heads a committee assessing earthquake risks at Italy’s Civil Protection agency, told reporters in L’Aquila. “Once again we are faced with the lack of control on the quality of construction.”