Why Do Italian Disasters Kill So Many People?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Antonio Calanni / AP

A man walks through debris in the village of Scaletta Zanclea, near Messina, Sicily, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009

Disasters in Italy have a predictable chronology: after the calamity strikes, rescues are attempted, destiny is lamented and pledges are made to rebuild destroyed towns. And without fail, as the first victims are still being buried, a criminal investigation is opened.

So it happened in April when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit the Abruzzo region near the central city of L'Aquila, killing 308 and sparking a judicial inquiry into the allegedly inadequate seismic standards of several of the destroyed buildings. A June explosion at a train yard in Tuscany that killed 31, initially bemoaned as a "tragic accident," is now being investigated by a team of prosecutors who say that inadequate maintenance and rusting tracks were to blame. The same scenario is now playing out near the Sicilian city of Messina, where a mudslide Friday has left at least 25 dead and 38 missing. Magistrates have began to investigate whether lives could have been saved if authorities had issued orders to evacuate the villages sooner and did more to regulate the long history of unsafe, illicit residential construction in the area.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi flew into the region to tour some of the worst-hit villages — Giampilieri, Briga and Scaletta Zanclea. Berlusconi, who predicted that the death toll would rise past 50, pledged up to $1.46 billion to build new houses for displaced residents. He said government officials had called for an evacuation when the rains started, but by that time, it was too late. "We had foreseen this disaster and given the alert," Berlusconi told reporters in Messina. "But the rains were even more intense than we expected. It was truly an exceptional situation."

Beyond the fatalistic Prime Minister and dogged local investigators, there is a growing sense that something bigger has gone awry in Italy, where disasters with high death tolls seem to happen more often than in other advanced Western countries. As he watched the latest news from Messina, a London-based Italian put it bluntly: "Italy is like a Third World country," said Andrea Coscelli, an economist who has lived abroad for 16 years. "It rains for two days, and you have 50 dead." Italy's newspapers have also hinted at the failure of authorities to adequately warn residents about the heavy rains, and at the slowness of the government's response. "There is a chain of errors, omissions and delays behind the tragedy of Messina," the daily Corriere Della Sera said in an editorial Monday.

Experts point to deeper, more long-term problems in Italy. Edoardo Zanchini, who heads the urban planning division at the Italian environmental group Legambiente, compared parts of Italy to Bangladesh with regard to the risk that comes with having a high human concentration in perilous natural conditions. "In Sicily, in Calabria, and other parts of the South, you have entire towns built in zones with a hydrogeological dynamic that is very delicate," says Zanchini. "Either you have the courage to force people to permanently move, or put in place a very rigid evacuation strategy. We don't have one or the other [in Italy]. And so you know that sooner or later, something like [the Messina disaster] is bound to happen." Zanchini noted that people continue to build homes in high-risk parts of the U.S., but major natural disasters don't usually produce death tolls like those in Italy because residents are ordered to evacuate in time. Hurricane Katrina is the one glaring exception, but those deaths can be tied to clear failures on the government's part both in terms of preparedness and response to the disaster.

In the wake of the Messina mudslide, the government has launched an internal investigation to determine why residents were not evacuated before the rains began. President Giorgio Napolitano has also called for a nationwide review of residential safety to assess which homes are so perilously built that they should be demolished. "If we don't activate a serious, long-term plan that guarantees security, rather than investing in multimillion-euro projects, these parts of the country will continue to be at risk," he says. Napolitano's reference to high-cost projects was interpreted by some as a swipe at the bridge that Berlusconi wants to build from Messina to the mainland city of Reggio Calabria. The so-called Strait of Messina Bridge, estimated to cost nearly $9 billion, is hailed by its supporters as the best way to kick-start the economy in southern Italy. Its critics, however, note the lack of good roads around the proposed bridge site and the risk that organized-crime networks will infiltrate the public bids process for constructing the span.

Zanchini says the building of roads, bridges and homes is "fertile terrain" for the Mafia, but Italy's problems are more serious. "There is bad governance, and a general lack of attention in society to long-term problems. In Italy, we forget continuously," he says. Just as in L'Aquila, however, there at least three villages near Messina that will never forget.