The earthquake in Central Italy: stereotyped narratives and missing social science

by Giuseppe Forino*

The analyses proposed in the aftermath of the earthquake that hit central Italy on August 24th overlook social and political dimensions of disasters, or reduce the issue to stereotypical explanations. We need to add human and social perspectives to disaster studies and actions for deconstructing such partial and superficial narratives.

terremoto centro italia 2
Amatrice: the clock tower, called Torre Civica (XIII century) still standing in the village centre, surrounded by several collapsed buildings. (source: BBC)

The disaster

According to the Civil Protection Department, the earthquake which occurred in a small hill area in the Latium, Marche, Abruzzi, and Umbria regions on August 24th caused 290 reported deaths across three municipalities (230 in Amatrice, 11 in Accumoli, 49 in Arquata del Tronto). There are more than 300 injured. 2,500 have lost their homes and evacuated to tent camps. Some people are still missing. The total number of deaths will be close to that of 309 after the L’Aquila-Abruzzi earthquake, de facto representing one of the most severe disasters in Italy after the 1980 earthquake in Campania (the area I am from) and Basilicata regions, which killed more than 3000 people.

The affected area consists of small villages. Amatrice has around 3000 inhabitants, Accumoli 700, Arquata sul Tronto around 1000. The built environment is mainly constituted by cultural heritage buildings, ranging from medieval times to peasant houses of early XX century, scarcely resilient to earthquakes, and in some cases with limited ordinary maintenance. Legislators are conducting an initial investigation on the bureaucratic process for the development approval of 115 collapsed buildings by the Amatrice and Accumoli City Councils (Del Porto and Tonacci, 2016). Some of the buildings in these areas have been used as holiday houses, for example by people from Rome, which is less than two hours away by road. Among the victims, around 50 were from Rome or close areas, as well as Italian and English tourists. Villages in the Apennines Mountains and, more generally, the vast inland and rural Italy, suffer historically from limited development and few job opportunities. This has led to depopulation, abandonment by youth, and a demographic structure that is aging, mirroring the general demographic trends of Italy.

“You talkin’ me?” (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver, 1976)

Some of the reports I have read on this earthquake seem to be using a pure hard science approach for analysing the chronic problem of disasters in Italy. For example, Gully (2016) on the IRIN website focuses on cultural heritage conservation in Italy, and claims the sacrosanct necessity for Italy to investment in earthquake-proof retrofitting. However, individuals and families also have to increase their risk awareness and to retrofit their buildings in order to be earthquake proof. In this regard, the same article quotes Michele Calvi, professor of earthquake engineering at IUSS Pavia. Calvi claims that most of the houses in the affected area were owned by the elderly, or were holiday homes, so they had no great motivation for retrofitting, and that it is necessary to create significant incentives for people to update these buildings codes.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. What is wrong is the selection of the expert to talk about disasters including statements on local communities. Calvi is in fact a “hard scientist” that projected, promoted, and helped the Berlusconi’s government in 2009 to realize the CASE Project (Calvi and Spaziante, 2009), still now one the most ignominious and widely-criticized post-disaster housing projects worldwide. A project of 19 new settlements spread across L’Aquila, paradoxically built through a superficial top-down approach as a temporary measure in emergency but with permanent purposes (Alexander, 2013). A project which radically altered the land use and the local landscape and spatial organization, with no public services, public transport, social spaces (Calandra, 2012; Forino, 2015), and refused by part of the population (Fois and Forino, 2014). Therefore, it is quite shocking to a reader with some experience of Italian disasters that a scientist like Michele Calvi, who neglected progressive disaster social research through his action in L’Aquila, has been given space to talk about communities in the affected areas. Why does he have to talk to me?

terremoto centro italia 3
A rescuer with her dog. 238 people have been pulled out alive from the rubble. (source: Thenewdaily.com.au)

Hey, Italiano: Pizza, spaghetti and mandolin

Another interesting piece is by Hooper (2016) in The Guardian, which reports that

Italian officialdom reflects the values of society, in particular Italians’ generalised contempt for rules of any kind, and the prevalence of lazy officials and apathetic, or even corrupt, politicians”.

Systematic corruption permeates most of the political and institutional levels in Italy, particularly through the overlap of financial/economic lobbies, mafia, and powerful institutional positions. In the current political setting of Italy, illegal activities are often used as  longa manus of legally institutionalized systems, harassing territories through industrial pollution, environmental risk, or private use of natural resource, all with the real blessing -but the apparent opposition- by formal and legal institutions. This, of course, is also reflected in disaster recovery. National and international literature is full of examples of seismic disaster recoveries (but not limited to them) in Italy which have been led by powerful lobbies, intruding into the political setting and conniving in order to raise the reconstruction cost, three, four, ten times, and demanding the required funds to be disbursed (Caporale, 2010). This process spams across decades and it has been held just by a fistful of powerful people within the political, industrial, and financial environments, while leaving crumbs to the local communities and therefore contributing to exacerbate emigration, unemployment and social injustice. In a sort of perennial post-disaster recovery associated with paternalistic development in Southern Italy, the Italian government is still sending reconstruction funds to e.g. the Belice area (1968 earthquake), to Campania and Basilicata regions (1980) and to Molise region (2002), with limited or nil improvement in terms of labour policies, social welfare or culture (Caporale, 2010).

However, contemporary global politics is demonstrating that concepts such as “legal”/rules and “illegal” have always more overlaps than differences, with the “legal”/rules using -while blaming- the “illegal” to perpetrate social and spatial inequalities or to find a scapegoat for bypassing public responsibilities. Wars, exploitation, neo-colonialism, racism, asylum-seekers debate, civilization clash propaganda demonstrate this, every day and at each scale and latitude. Italy is therefore perfectly framed within, but also exacerbates, the common and contradictory democratic framework that we observe within the global neoliberal society. No. Italy is not a black sheep within an innocent and virtuous flock made by US, European Union, Australia, or puppet dictators worldwide.

In addition, the aforementioned statement does not consider the other side of disaster recovery history in Italy. The country has seen impressive social mobilization, as born in post-earthquake areas to claim democracy, participation, rights, and law requirements, such as the struggle for work rights and prompt reconstruction in Belice or Campania and Basilicata (Ventura, 2010), the bottom-up reconstruction plans by some affected communities (Forino, 2015), the community resilience initiatives (Fois and Forino, 2014), and the participatory practices (Calandra 2012) in L’Aquila, as well as the grassroots mobilization in Emilia Romagna (Hajek, 2013). Hooper (2016) manages to trivialize the issue, probably because he is not aware of the bottom up requests for transparency, democracy, and laws, in opposition to the systematic corruption after disasters. Talking about “values of a society” is therefore always problematic, particularly when trying to judge an entire national system and its inhabitants in a wicked event such as a disaster. Values are always individual, although mediated by the context in which these are performed and experienced, and claiming that the values of the Italian society are those of laziness, corruption, and bypassing rules is stereotypical and discriminatory.

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Arquata del Tronto, tent camp. 16 tent camps operate in Latium, 16 in Marche, 26 in Umbria, and 5 in the Abruzzi region. The Civil Protection Department is providing assistance for 2688 people. The command and control methods which are traditionally used in emergency management raised several criticisim in the past Italian earthquakes, particularly in L’Aquila earthquake of 2009. (source: Irishtimes.com)

A missing social science

These articles are just two among the numerous reports of the earthquake in Italy that have proposed a partial analysis to a complex issue such as a disaster. While hard scientists and professionals such as seismologists, geologists, engineers, architects, planners, economists are necessary figures to assist politics and policy-making in being effective, they have to be supported by, and to mutually support, the analysis of social issues that intervene within a disaster scenario and have contributed to shape disaster literature for the past 80 years. Such analysis includes for example history, development, specific needs within communities of people with disability or children, communication, formal and informal network between citizens and institutions (Ventura and Carnelli, 2015). Scientists and professionals such as anthropologists, sociologists, communication and media experts, geographers, and territorial scientists of any sort are fundamental in adding a human and social perspective to disaster studies and actions, and particularly in deconstructing partial and superficial narratives such as those aforementioned.

References

Alexander, D.E., (2013), An evaluation of the medium-term recovery process after the 6 April 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, central Italy. Environmental Hazards, 12 (1), 60– 73.

Calandra, L. M. (2012). Territorio e democrazia. Un laboratorio di geografia sociale nel doposisma aquilano. Edizioni L’Una.

Calvi, G. M., Spaziante, V. (2009). La ricostruzione tra provvisorio e definitivo: il Progetto CASE. Progettazione sismica3, 227-252.

Caporale, A. (2010). Terremoti spa. Dall’Irpinia all’Aquila. Così i politici sfruttano le disgrazie e dividono il paese. Rizzoli.

Del Porto D., Tonacci, F., 2016, Terremoto, l’accusa del procuratore: “Palazzi con più sabbia che cemento”, http://www.repubblica.it/cronaca/2016/08/27/news/terremoto_l_accusa_del_procuratore_palazzi_con_piu_sabbia_che_cemento_-146690386/?ref=HREA-1

Fois, F., Forino, G. (2014). The self‐built ecovillage in L’Aquila, Italy: community resilience as a grassroots response to environmental shock. Disasters38(4), 719-739.

Forino, G. (2015). Disaster recovery: narrating the resilience process in the reconstruction of L’Aquila (Italy). Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography115(1), 1-13.

Gully A., (2016), The problem of medieval villages and earthquakeshttp://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2016/08/26/problem-medieval-villages-and-earthquakes?utm_source=IRIN+-+the+inside+story+on+emergencies&utm_campaign=0572bb12bb-RSS_EMAIL_ENGLISH_ALL&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_d842d98289-0572bb12bb-15672893

Hajek, A., (2013), Learning from L’Aquila: grassroots mobilization in post-earthquake Emilia-Romagna. Journal of Modern Italian Studies18(5), 627-643.

Hooper J., (2016), Italy earthquake throws spotlight on lax construction laws,https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/24/italy-earthquake-throws-spotlight-on-lax-construction-laws?CMP=share_btn_fb

Ventura S., (2010), Non sembrava novembre quella sera, Mephite.

Ventura S., Carnelli, F., (eds.), (2015), Oltre il rischio sismico. Valutare, comunicare e decidere oggi, Carocci.

*Giuseppe Forino is a human geographer, PhD candidate in Disaster Management and research assistant in the School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle (Australia). His research focuses on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in the Hunter Valley, Australia. Giuseppe also holds a previous PhD in Economic Geography from Sapienza-University of Rome (Italy) (2008-2011), in which he worked on community resilience after the earthquake which hit L’Aquila and the Abruzzi region in 2009.

This article appeared originally on Disasters & Development blog by the research team at the University of Newcastle, Australia. They also run a Facebook page.

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