A 6.2 magnitude earthquake that killed at least 290 people in central Italy on the 24th of August has left officials walking a fine line in their communications with the public. According to the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks (CGR), powerful tremors are a possibility in the weeks and months ahead, as some past earthquakes in Italy have preceded similarly strong quakes in the following months. The same concerns have led to controversy in the wake of past quakes in the area. In 2009, six scientists and a public official were charged with falsely stating to local residents that a repeat quake was unlikely, days after which a second earthquake struck, killing 309 people. The trial stirred international controversy, and the prosecutors were accused of failing to understand the limits of seismological predictions. The scientists were convicted of manslaughter and each given 6-year sentences, but were acquitted last year by Italy’s supreme court. The public official, however, was convicted.
CRG procedures were updated after that incident, and the recent quake has tested the organization. A press release went out describing the quake to be typical of those in Italy’s Apennine Mountain region. However, it also highlights earthquakes throughout the history of central Italy that preceded powerful aftershocks, including quakes in 1639 and a pair in 1703. According to seismologists, Italy’s Civil Protection Department (DPC) must remain extremely cautious in their warnings to the public.
While seismologists are able to establish “some percent” of danger near the epicenter of the quake in the following week, defining the area in danger can be an issue. Defining this area too narrowly risks giving those just outside the area an undue sense of safety, while defining the danger too broadly may cause people to panic and put themselves in a worse situation. The shadow of the 2009 trial has left scientists and officials feeling even more constrained. Before the trial, experts were more likely to release a statement with some level of subjectivity and “room for interpretation”, whereas now the pressure is on to stick to empirical data exclusively.
The quake struck 10 kilometers southeast of Norcia at 3:36 A.M. 53 of those killed were in the town of Amatrice, with other fatalities reported in the towns of Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto. Many of the smaller settlements affected are only accessible by small roads, which limited the use of heavy machinery in rescue efforts.