The recent earthquake in Italy has a reported death toll of 25, making it the most deadly quake to strike the region since the 2009 earthquake that leveled the city of L’Aquila and killed over 300. Both quakes highlight a serious problem faced by experts, scientists and officials who advocate greater structural security, especially in seismically active zones.
The problem is that the earthquakes struck very old, historical cities with buildings that were built hundreds of years ago, well before the advent of seismic building codes. These historical structures are often inhabited or utilized by town residents who do not realize the susceptibility of the structure to collapse after a seismic event. Such lack of information can have clear and tragic consequences.
So then the problem presents itself, what can be done to impose 21st century building codes on 13th century structures? Surprisingly, Italy had already begun implementing the answer to that problem.
The region where the earthquake struck was only added to seismic hazard maps in 2003, convincing legislators in Italy to pass a law requiring all buildings to meet updated seismic codes in order to prevent a disaster. Unfortunately, the implementation of this legislation was slow moving, largely due to the exorbitant costs, and by the time this year’s earthquake came around, few historic structures had been properly updated to meet the new codes.
The primary boundary to the implementation of these much needed changes is the lack of incentivization techniques employed by the Italian government to entice small businesses to meet the new codes. If financial incentives or tax exemptions had been introduced, perhaps more buildings would have met the codes and lives could have been saved.
It appears it takes a large scale disaster such as the recent earthquakes in order to prompt concrete action. It’s up to the Italian people to decide whether the initial costs of a bit of structural planning and upgrading is worth the much larger cost of human lives.