L’Aquila earthquake verdict explained from Risk Crisis Management point of view

L’Aquila earthquake verdict explained from Risk Crisis Management point of view

Feb 6th, 2013

Data for this “L’Aquila earthquake verdict explained from Risk Crisis Management point of view” summary have been gathered through media and publicly available records. Details we consider “irrelevant”  for this discussion on L’Aquila earthquake verdict explained from Risk Crisis Management point of view have been omitted because of space limitations. We will start this post by summarizing the tragic tale of L’Aquila, a city featuring many historic public buildings and centuries old residential structures located in Italy, a country where retrofitting of old (privately owned) structures to meet new seismic safety criteria is reportedly not enforced (OPCM 3274/03, art. 2, comma 6).


L’Aquila earthquake verdict explained from Risk Crisis Management point of view

By enpasedecentrale – originally posted to Flickr as Emergenza Terremoto Abruzzo 2009 – 12, CC BY 2.0

The area is seismic and a significant swarm was recorded

The area is seismic as witnessed by major earthquakes recorded since the year 1349, then 1452, 1461, 1501, 1646, 1703, 1706, 1958 and 2009. The last quake led to 309 casualties, 1600 wounded (200 very severely). In addition 65,000 were evacuated and damages for over 10B€ occurred in the city. Numerous studies had been conducted on the seismicity of the area, including long-term predictions made in 1995.

It is well known, that predictions in this field are always surrounded by large uncertainties. Other studies had shown that local conditions may have amplified the effects of a quake in the area. A 1999 study on the vulnerability of public, strategic and “special” buildings showed critical vulnerabilities, which were never addressed in many buildings (including, reportedly, all those that ended up collapsing during the last earthquake).

Prior to the tragic event a “swarm” of foreshock earthquakes with almost 100 times the average rate was recorded in and around L’Aquila. The swarm triggered a crisis status due to public’s panic, further fueled by independent scientists opinions. The swarm had started in December 2008 (M=1.8), then in January with M=3 gradually and continuously evolving with increasing intensity and frequency to the date of the major event.

The role of the government

Italy has an official government body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks.  Six top officers participated in a meeting with the public on 31st March 2009. That was six days before the nefarious earthquake (Mw=6.3/Richter 5.9), and a day after the latest, and strongest event in the swarm.

Reportedly six commission members and one civil protection officer worked together as a collective unit. They met at the request of the head of the Civil Protection Department, Bertolaso. They carried out what Bertolaso had called a “media operation”. That meant that the experts spoke directly with the public rather than via the civil protection department. Still the public’s concerns were entirely dismissed and people were told to relax instead of being on guard. As a result some of the town’s residents changed their behaviour of seeking shelter outside, as they were used to doing when tremors happened, staying indoors instead.
The seven were brought to trial for manslaughter in September 2011 for the advice they gave in that meeting.

L’Aquila earthquake verdict explained from Risk Crisis Management point of view

L’Aquila was a very vulnerable “portfolio”. It was exposed to recurring hazards in the past, and had a chance of occurring again in the future.
Both the hazard and the vulnerability were well documented. The only unknown was the timing. Whether the 2008-2009 swarm was a beneficial energy release or a series of foreshocks leading to a stronger main event is quite irrelevant.

From a prior post on Negligence (see prior post for more detail on Negligence) we know that in some countries tort law uses the somewhat vague standard test of the “reasonable man” to judge liability of negligence. Following the test, an entity may be deemed negligent only if Mitigative moneys spent (per annum) are less than the annualized risks. Clearly transparency and rationality constitute a strong a priori defence in case something would go wrong.

In that post we showed that the legal negligence test is not a critical factor for safety, health and risk and crisis management. However it constitutes a bare minimum. The negligence test is not an end, but only the start of a continuous process.

How would the test score for L’Aquila case?

Even if one decided to be madly optimistic and not consider casualties, but consider only the:

  • replacement cost of the public infrastructure (excluding private residences),
  • loss in tax revenues,
  • cost of rescue and emergency management,

the overall cost of the catastrophe could have been very optimistically estimated ahead of the quake at 5B€. Below are the replies of the test (at L’Aquila) for various probabilities of occurrence:
p= 1/100 C (B€)=5 Minimum Mitigative Moneys=50M€/yr
p=1/1000 C (B€)=5 Minimum Mitigative Moneys=5M€/yr

The reason for selecting a probability of 1/100 derives from the nine major recorded events in approximately 700 years. However, even if one would consider, a lower probability, say 1/1000, the Minimum Mitigative Moneys would still be 5M€/yr.

Apparently nothing was done in l’Aquila to mitigate or prepare for the “next big one”. As far as we can read, no one ever performed a negligence test, a proper risk assessment, where not only the hazard, but also the consequences are considered.

Furthermore there was no transparency in the information to the public, to say the least.

What the Judge has ruled

The judge stated that the seven members of the Commissione had analyzed the risk of a major quake in a “superficial, approximate and generic” way. Thus they were willing participants in a “media operation” to reassure the public. He ruled this failure led to 29 of the 309 casualties and to the injuries of four others.  

“The deficient risk analysis was not limited to the omission of a single factor,” he writes, “but to the underestimation of many risk indicators and the correlations between those indicators”.

We would add that unfortunately the convicted seem to have performed hazard analyses, but not risk analyses, i.e. they did not consider the potential effects of the hazard and what the mitigative options could have been (not only retrofitting, but preparedness, drills, etc.).

The statement above summarizes very well Riskope’s understanding and analysis of the facts available to us.
Most comments about the sentence are misleading. They show the ignorance of their authors of the basic rules of risk analysis. No one said that “science has been killed”. And the statement that “the last time a scientist was judged in this way was Galileo” is simply lambastic. As a matter of fact, Scientific American (David Ropeik) made a sensible comment. He indicated that “this was not a case against science, the Judge recognized the non predictability of such an event already in the indictment, but a judgement against the failure of scientific communication (of risks)”.


L’Aquila earthquake verdict explained from Risk Crisis Management point of view boils down to a couple statements. No doubt geoscientists, seismologists and engineers are very capable and respectable hazard specialists. However, it is time they recognize that risk assessments are an area which requires specific knowledge.
Risk specialists should prepare Risk Assessments. Hazard knowledge constitutes at most half of the equation.
Judges have grasped the difference.

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Category: Consequences, Hazard, Mitigations, Probability Impact Graphs, Risk analysis, Risk management, Tolerance/Acceptability

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