Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On shaky ground

Italian seismologists and other experts are defending themselves against charges of manslaughter in a concurrent civil and criminal trial being held right now in Rome. The following 7 defendants have been accused of failing to warn the public in advance of the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck on April 6, 2009:
  • Franco Barberi, Head, Serious Risks Commission
  • Enzo Boschi, Former President, National Institute of Geophysics
  • Bernardo De Bernardinis, Former Vice President, Civil Protection Agency's Technical Department (2nd image, on right with his lawyer)
  • Gian Michele Calvi, Director, European Center for Earthquake Engineering
  • Mauro Dolce, Director, Civil Protection Agency's Earthquake Risk Office
  • Claudio Eva, Physicist
  • Giulio Selvaggi, Director, National Earthquake Center
The earthquake killed 308 people and injured 1,500 in L'Aquila. The medieval town was largely reduced to rubble (1st image, an example of the damage), forcing thousands of survivors to live in tent camps or temporary housing for months. A week before the quake, the experts had issued a memo responding to mounting concerns after months of seismic activity in the region. They stated that a major earthquake was unlikely, though not impossible, and reassured residents that there was no need to evacuate.

The case is being closely watched by seismologists around the globe who insist it's impossible to predict earthquakes and dangerous to suggest otherwise, since seismologists will be discouraged from issuing any advice at all if they fear legal retaliation. Last year, about 5,200 international scientists - seismologists, professors, and researchers - rallied around their Italian colleagues by signing an open letter to Italy's president Giorgio Napolitano. Rick Aster, president of the Seismological Society of America, writes, "Pursuing legal action against members of the seismological community after an earthquake is unprecedented and reflects a misunderstanding of the science of earthquakes." Lawyer for one of the plaintiffs Wania della Vigna counters, "The science is not on trial here...it is a trial to judge if there were responsibilities, mistakes, or incorrect behavior by those scientists who held the meeting in L'Aquila before the earthquake happened."

The city of L'Aquila has requested 50 million ($68 million) in compensation. "I'm afraid that like an earthquake, nothing in this case is predictable," said defense attorney Marcello Milandri.

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