Hard questions over building safety norms in Italy quake zone

10th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

The president lamented what he called "widespread irresponsibility" in building construction and said "no one should shut their eyes."

Rome -- President Giorgio Napolitano called Thursday for builders, safety inspectors and estate agents to examine their consciences over their role in the collapse of thousands of structures in the earthquake in central Italy.

Napolitano added his voice to a growing chorus of accusations that the flouting of building safety standards for earthquake zones had claimed innocent lives as the disaster's death toll rose to 281.

The president lamented what he called "widespread irresponsibility" in building construction and said "no one should shut their eyes."

Among the many modern buildings that suffered partial or total collapse in the quake were a hospital, city buildings, the provincial seat and university buildings.

"The same earthquake in California would not have killed a single person," Franco Barberi, a member of the parliamentary committee on major risk prevention, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

The fact that "even recent buildings that were supposed to be built to withstand earthquakes suffered incredible damage" showed that inspections had been inadequate, he said.

Prosecutors have opened an inquiry over construction safety in parts of the earthquake-struck region including at the local San Salvatore hospital, which was only finished a few years ago but had to be abandoned after the quake.

A 1974 building code for earthquake zones was updated in 1996 and again in 2005 after 27 children were killed when a school collapsed in a 2002 quake in the neighbouring region of Molise, but the new code has yet to take effect.

Late last year, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government renewed a postponement approved by his predecessor Romano Prodi -- and the code is now due to take effect in June 2010.

"We have been aware of seismic tremors for three months," the president of L'Aquila province, Stefania Pezzopane, told the German news weekly Der Spiegel.

"Even if researchers say that you can't predict earthquakes, we know that Abruzzo is in an active seismic zone. But the buildings are not built to resist earthquakes," she said.

Some 20 million people are at risk from earthquakes in Italy, which sits atop two fault lines.

Luca d'Innocenzo, an official at a dormitory in L'Aquila that fell like a house of cards on Monday, killing several people, also denounced lax inspections.

"No official from the region, civil protection, or the fire service came to see us over the last three months" during which some 400 tremors were recorded, he told the Italian daily La Repubblica.

"There are entire parts of our cities that should be scrapped," Stefano Boeri wrote in a commentary in the daily La Stampa.

"Homes, schools, hospitals and prisons that are so structurally fragile that even the slightest tremor threatens them."

The destruction wrought by Monday's earthquake tells "a cruel story" about "homes built quickly and with maximum saving, trying to use as little iron as possible and with concrete with a lot of sand and little cement," he added.

Berlusconi's government has estimated 1.3 billion euros (1.7 billion dollars) will be needed to repair or rebuild some 10,000 buildings damaged in the quake.

Fears are growing that mafia businesses known for their poor standards could move in on the reconstruction effort like they did after a devastating earthquake near Naples in 1980 that killed more than 2,500 people.

"The post-earthquake will be the most sensitive phase," said local trade unionist Gianfranco Giorgi, quoted in the Il Sole 24 Ore business daily. "Appetites will be high and attempts at underworld infiltration will be too."

Berlusconi's proposal to build a new town near L'Aquila, a city of 70,000 people, is further worrying those who fear it will just make more money for the mafia.

The premier has pledged that reconstruction would be supervised by the finance ministry with the "most total transparency."


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