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Abruzzo earthquake damage

The ABC today ran an interesting and somewhat alarming story about six seismologists being jailed in Italy for failing to provide adequate warning of a magnitude 6.8 quake that devastated the ancient town of L’Aquila in April 2009 – killing 300 people and injuring 1,000 more.

The furore over the sentencing and imprisonment was described from the point of view of the scientific community being up in arms and making ugly noises about the imprisonment being a major disincentive for any scientist  – or I suppose other professionals like engineers to provide advice to government in case the advice results in a pear-shaped disaster.

It raises several issues –

  • the culpability of professionals for their advice – regardless of whether they could have accurately foreseen the consequences or not;
  • societies’ desire for laying the blame and making somebody pay for the bad things that can and do happen to individuals, and
  • insurance companies’ comparative appetites for risk and profit.

We have seen comparable post-disaster witch hunting in Australia in the terrible Victorian bushfires and the Queensland / Brisbane floods where government officials have been shown the blowtorch on the belly for making – or conversely not making decisions that might have had less severe outcomes.  Professional careers have been ruined as well as lives lost and there is not much coverage of the psychological damage wrought on professionals who may suffer terrible guilt mingled with entrenched denial of culpability for the caprices of nature.

The scientists at the heart of the L’Aquila earthquake matter were essentially criticised for having met a few days before the major quake when small tremors had been experienced – and having issued cautious warnings – that presumably the locals ignored.  Neither of these mishaps is difficult to understand.  The ABC piece speaks of Italy as having the most seismically active regions in Europe with hundreds of tremors each year.  And the assertion is that few of these small tremors precede major quakes.

It’s easy to imagine that a scientist who frequently calls “wolf” just in case – causing massive scale evacuations to no good effect is pretty soon going to be facing the same gun as those recently incarcerated.

But in truth, when dealing with mother nature, nobody, not even the best scientists with the most experience and state of the art equipment, data and computing power can really tell the future.  So it should not be open for anyone to not just apportion blame, but to mete out punishment to a scientist for being, at the end of the day, merely human and having interpreted equivocal information in a way that time judged to be incorrect.

While the police and judiciary in L’Aquila and say, New Orleans have sought to bang heads in the name of retribution for the dead and suffering populations in their boroughs, there seems to be little appetite amongst the Japanese for payback to the executives, engineers and scientists who clearly were responsible for the design, operation and maintenance of the Fukushima – and other nuclear reactors – disasters in waiting for which they were able to plan and have contingencies in place.  Curious.

While public officials and politicians may be content to sheet home the blame for the extent of damage caused by natural disasters in the man made environment, insurance companies  – for whom the threat of the same is pure oxygen – blame is directly linked to profit.  These monsters will happily take the cash from punters for decades, and when the shit hits the fan, they are genetically predisposed to try to apportion as much blame to the victims – or other insurance companies’ customers as possible – All in the name of profit.  Nothing to do with ameliorating the disaster.

Witness the hair-splitting of disgraceful insurers over the definition of floodwater versus storm water in their slimy attempts to defraud policy holders of their due entitlement to compensation.

Pity the poor people of New Orleans who have lived through one of America’s worst natural disasters.  Whole devastated districts remain, years after the events because even those who were insured – and who received some kind of payout for having their homes and possessions destroyed cannot rebuild because the insurance companies have refused to re-insure any property in these particularly low-lying neighbourhoods.  The boroughs where live the poorest Americans.

One of the major differences between the New Orleans and L’Aquila disasters was the response of the disaster management authorities after the events.  The incompetence of the Bush-appointed managers and the President himself in taking a leadership role was perhaps the lowest point in an epically bad presidency.  But the strengths of the Churches and welfare agencies and the massive resources in the US economy to assist the people of Louisiana proved to be decisive in the end.  Not much has been said about the fate of the people of L’Aquila after the quake.  The ABC piece said that this is the third time that the ancient town has been flattened and one wonders, like it is for the  good folk of Christchurch, whether enough is now enough.

It is some comfort – perhaps small comfort to see the victims of these terrible disasters coming together to support each other, but there is a similar look on both the faces of the insured and the uninsured alike.  The look is a mix of apprehension about the steep mountain they will both need to climb and the appreciation of the care and support they afford each other.

So is there any justification for punishing scientists and engineers who time later proves to have “got it wrong” ?  Will it raise the dead or the buildings ?