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Victims of nature

Once more I am digressing, and I hope you will forgive me. However, a decision by an Italian court to sentence six scientists and a government official to six years in prison for manslaughter yesterday for failing to give adequate warning of an earthquake that killed more than 300 people in L’Aquila Italy in 2009, may impact how the region’s responders and emergency managers view their personal liability.

The 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck L’Aquila, at 3:32 a.m. on April 6, 2009, damaging thousands of buildings, killing 308 and injuring more than 1,000 people.

The case is part of a wider controversy over the disaster in L’Aquila, which has been at the centre of a series of bitter rows over Italy’s disaster preparedness. Central Italy is continuously shaken by low level tremors, very few of which precede bigger earthquakes, and they are generally marked by no more than a brief statement from civil protection authorities.

Live Science and Reuters reported that the scientists; Enzo Boschi, president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, Franco Barberi, committee vice president; Bernardo De Bernardinis, at the time vice president of Italy’s Civil Protection Department and now president of the country’s Institute for Environmental Protection and Research; Giulio Selvaggi, director of the National Earthquake Centre; Gian Michele Calvi, director of the European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering; Claudio Eva, an earth scientist at the University of Genoa; and Mauro Dolce, director of the office of seismic risk at the Civil Protection Department, were convicted of criminal manslaughter and causing criminal injury. Pending an appeal, they are not likely to serve their prison term until after their appeal trial is heard.

The seven Italian professionals were placed under investigation almost a year ago, and in May 2011, L’Aquila Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella announced that they would be tried. According to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, the judge said that in a press conference, six days before the quake, the major risks committee consisting of the seven defendants had supplied “imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information,” in doing so, they “thwarted the activities designed to protect the public,” the judge said.

Major Risks Committee vice-chair Barberi, one of the seven found guilty of manslaughter, was reported as saying during a meeting held on 31 March 2009, that there were no grounds for thinking that a major quake was imminent, even though the area around L’Aquila had been experiencing a series of smaller tremors in the previous months. In the press briefing, Italian prosecutors said that the commission made statements that gave the town’s people a false sense of security.

The decision has been condemned by international bodies including the American Geophysical Union, which was reported as saying that the risk of litigation may deter scientists worldwide from advising governments or even working in seismology and seismic risk assessments. Another scientific group of meteorologists have also indicated that the decision could also impact how meteorology will be viewed in the future, as there is a higher frequency of Hurricanes than earthquakes; especially in the Caribbean the Gulf.

Italian defense lawyers stated during the trial that earthquakes could not be predicted, and even if they could be predicted, there was nothing that could be done to prevent them from occurring.

Reuters quoted the defense lawyer Franco Coppi saying before the verdict; “If an event cannot be foreseen and, more to the point, cannot be avoided, it is hard to understand how there can be any suggestion of a failure to predict the risk.” Prosecutors said they did not expect scientists to provide a precise forecast and had sought a four-year sentence. However, they argued that the commission had given “incomplete, imprecise and contradictory” information on the danger after a meeting on March 31, 2009, a few days before the earthquake.

In January 2011, the Head of the Seismic Research Unit in Trinidad presented the Region with a seismological warning that the Caribbean should be prepared for a possible 8.0 Earthquake. Ironically, he did not say when it would happen. The seismological warning immediately caused the Caribbean community to initiate a series of awareness programmes advising people to plan and prepare for such an event. The media followed suit with its own version of “awareness news items” carrying in-depth interviews and reports on what such an event could do to the islands. Almost two years later, many have said that another “storm in a teacup” had been presented to the public and “that if you don’t know something definitive to shut up”.

Does this verdict in Italy mean that since the 8.0 warning did not bear fruit in the region, and Caribbean residents incurred what, in their opinion, were financial losses from spending money on earthquake preparedness, that the residents can now sue to recover their money? More importantly, can the region’s experts and consultants be prosecuted for natural hazard predictions and warnings that fail to become a reality?

My concern here is who will the public sue and what legal precedent will they use to justify their claims? Furthermore, should regional scientists, consultants and first responders, in fact the entire emergency management community plan for a lawsuit since the 8.0 did not occur? Or should they plan for 2013? Can we, as the region’s professionals and scientists afford such a law suit? Where would we get the money to pay if we lost?

I was always of the opinion, that if you warned or alerted a nation of a possible occurrence of a hazard creating a catastrophic impact, and it did not occur, but the nation, as a result of the possible occurrence, had further improved their level of preparedness planning and response – that we would not be blamed for it not happening, but instead that the entire process would be seen as positive, in that the country had benefitted from the measures that had been put in place to mitigate loss of life and reducing damage to property…. However the Italian verdict of manslaughter, suggests that it is better for it to occur than for it not to happen at all.

I again raised this issue with attorneys regarding whether Caribbean scientists and consultants could be sued for providing inadequate or limited information regarding the exact occurrence of a natural hazard as there now appeared a landmark case. The attorneys are still of the opinion that such a case would be extremely difficult to argue, but not impossible. But whether or not it would be successful would be another matter.

However, other factors that could be considered would be the issue of negligence on the part of officials, where it could be successfully proven that the emergency management and scientific community were directly at fault in not providing adequate warning of the impending occurrence of a hazard. They cautioned however that even with today’s state of the art technology available in the sciences, you still cannot guarantee which country will be definitely affected by a disaster. The attorneys also suggested that based on the manslaughter verdict of the Italian court case that some scientists and professionals in the region might be a little more cautious in what they say to the media or governments on matters of natural hazards for fear of finding themselves in the same position.

Does the Italian verdict further exacerbate the issue of Caribbean complacency? The physical impacts of Tropical Storm Tomas in 2010 are still being resolved by the victims of that disaster. If the Italian verdict means that the emergency response community must be “cautious” in their pronouncements, then does this mean that the quality of professionalism and commitment in the emergency management community will take a back-seat to cautiousness to avoid being found guilty of manslaughter?

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