Italy's Earthquake: Could Tragedy Have Been Avoided?

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Chris Helgren / Reuters

Italian rescue workers carry a body found in the rubble of a collapsed house in the village of Onna

Italy's worst earthquake in nearly three decades struck early Monday in the central region of Abruzzo, killing at least 207 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. As the death toll from the predawn quake rose throughout the day, the tragedy took a bitter twist as it emerged that a local seismologist had predicted a major tremor was on its way.

Dozens of residents in the province of L'Aquila, some 80 miles (130 km) east of Rome, were crushed in their beds when the earthquake struck at 3:32 a.m. Aftershocks could be felt throughout the early-morning hours, with efforts to find survivors intensifying into dusk. The original quake, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, shook awake most residents in the Italian capital, and the effects could be felt as far away as Naples. It was the deadliest earthquake in Italy since the one that killed more than 2,500 people in the southern town of Irpinia in November 1980. (See pictures of Italy's deadly earthquake.)

Throughout Monday, Italian television showed scenes of entire blocks of homes decimated and weeping survivors walking dazed in the dusty aftermath. Pope Benedict XVI offered prayers for the victims, while Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi canceled a trip to Russia. Other world leaders, including President Barack Obama, called to express their solidarity with the Italians. The deadly quake came just hours after a magnitude 4.6 tremor was felt across Italy's north-central region, with no reports of damage. Italy's boot-shaped peninsula is crisscrossed by two fault lines, with about 20 million of its 57 million residents at risk from earthquakes. (See pictures of Obama's trip to Europe.)

As emergency workers and volunteers began to search for survivors under the rubble in L'Aquila on Monday morning, perennial questions were already brewing over the sometimes slipshod building standards in Italy and the latest methods used for trying to predict when the earth will shake. Indeed, a little-noticed controversy had erupted the week before, after Giampaolo Giuliani, a seismologist at the nearby Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Abruzzo, predicted, following months of small tremors in the area, that a much bigger jolt was on its way. The researcher had said that a "disastrous" earthquake would strike on March 29, but when it didn't, Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency, officially denounced Giuliani in court last week for "false alarm." "These imbeciles enjoy spreading false news," Bertolaso was quoted as saying. "Everyone knows that you can't predict earthquakes."

Using a method that measures gasses emitted by small tremors, Giuliani, it turns out, was partially right. A much smaller seismic shift struck on the day he said it would, with the truly disastrous one arriving just one week later. "Someone owes me an apology," Giuliani, who is also a resident of L'Aquila, told reporters on Monday. "The situation here is dramatic. I am devastated but also angry."

It remains to be seen whether the buildings that were destroyed, which include a hospital and at least one school, were constructed according to the national seismic standards that were implemented after the Irpinia tragedy. The last major Italian earthquake, which measured 5.5 on the Richter scale, struck in San Giuliano di Puglia in the southern region of Molise in 2002. A teacher and 27 children were killed in that quake after a school collapsed. In February, five people were found guilty of negligence, including the town's mayor, whose daughter was one of the victims. (See pictures of an earthquake in China.)

The latest tragedy in Abruzzo is unlikely to resolve the question of whether scientists' predictions can help minimize the damage and death wreaked by earthquakes. What we know for sure is that following proper building standards certainly do.

Read a brief history of earthquakes

See pictures of Italy's deadly earthquake.