and Frances D’Emilio
ROME — Four top Italian disaster experts quit their posts Tuesday, saying the manslaughter convictions of former colleagues for failing to adequately warn of a deadly 2009 earthquake means they can’t effectively perform their duties.
A court in the quake-devastated town of L’Aquila convicted seven former members of Italy’s so-called “Great Risks Commission” and sentenced each of them to six years in prison, prompting predictions that experts would be discouraged from working in Italy for fear of similar risks of prosecution.
Commission President Luciano Maiani and two other members resigned, along with a top official for earthquake and volcano risk in the national Department of Civil Protection. Maiani said Monday’s court ruling made it impossible to work in a “calm and efficient” way.
Prosecutors alleged the defendants — who included some of Italy’s most internationally respected quake experts — didn’t properly inform town residents of the risk of a big quake following weeks of small tremors. But scientists have ridiculed the case, saying earthquakes cannot be accurately predicted. The convictions are expected to be appealed.
With the verdict, “we understood why the Great Risks Commission has that name,” a front-page commentary began in Corriere della Sera, a Milan daily. “The great risks are those to its members, as one deduces from the verdict.” Senate President Renato Schifani has called the convictions and prison terms “strange, embarrassing.”
Many scientists and commentators have noted that the court case failed to address a major cause of fatalities in disasters like quakes and mudslides: erecting homes, schools, hospitals and other public buildings on quake-prone terrain without the proper construction techniques or materials to make the structures more resilient.
After the April 2009 quake, which left 308 people dead, many experts said that the 6.3-magnitude temblor wouldn’t have caused such extensive damage if buildings been constructed or retrofitted to meet modern quake zone construction standards.
In Washington, the American Geophysical Union described the verdict and prison sentences as “troubling,” and expressed concern that they could “ultimately be harmful to international efforts to understand natural disasters and mitigate associated risk.”
“While the facts of the L’Aquila case are complex, the unfettered exchange of data and information, as well as the freedom and encouragement to participate in open discussions and to communicate results, are essential to the success of any type of scientific research,” the union, a professional and scientific organization with members from over 146 countries, said in a statement Tuesday. Relatives of some who perished in the 2009 quake said justice had been done. Ilaria Carosi, sister of one of the victims, told Italian state TV that public officials must be held responsible “for taking their job lightly.”
The world’s largest multidisciplinary science society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, condemned the charges, verdict and sentencing as a complete misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities.
There are swarms of seismic activity regularly in Italy and most do not end up causing dangerous earthquakes, said geologist Brooks Hanson, deputy editor of the organization’s Science magazine.
He said that if seismologists had to warn of a quake with every series of tremors, there would be too many false alarms and panic.
“With earthquakes we just don’t know,” Hanson said Monday. “We just don’t know how a swarm will proceed.”
Quake scientist Maria Beatrice Magnani, who followed the trial closely and knows the defendants professionally, called the outcome “pretty shocking.”
She disagreed with putting scientists on trial, and contended that the death toll would have been lower had buildings in the quake-prone area been better reinforced.
The verdict left Magnani and others in the field wondering about the way they articulate their work.
“We need to be extremely careful about what we say, and the information we provide has to be precise. We cannot allow ourselves to slip,” said Magnani, an associate research professor at the University of Memphis.
Comments on Twitter about the verdict abounded, with references to Galileo, the Italian scientist who was tried as a heretic in 1633 for his contention that the Earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa as Roman Catholic Church teaching then held. In 1992, Pope John Paul II declared that the church had erred in its ruling against the astronomer.Still, some experts argued that the trial was about communicating risk and not about whether scientists can or cannot predict earthquakes.
“This was about how they communicated” with a frightened public, said David Ropeik, a risk communications consultant who teaches at Harvard and offered advice to one defendant scientist. It was “not Galileo redux,” he said.
Defense lawyer Filippo Dinacci predicted that the L’Aquila court’s verdict would have a chilling effect on officials tasked with protecting Italians in natural disasters. Public officials would be afraid to “do anything,” Dinacci told reporters.