Italy quake highlights our vulnerability to disaster

Editor’s Note: Tracy Kijewski-Correa is associate professor of structural engineering and Linbeck Collegiate Chair in the department of civil & environmental engineering and earth sciences at the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on 21st century civil infrastructure challenges posed by increased urbanization and hazard vulnerability. She is the co-founder of Engineering2Empower, an initiative devoted to empowering community resilience in the developing world. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

You may not live in a fault zone, but you still could be victim to some kind of natural disaster, writes Tracy Kijewski-Correa

The vulnerability of the aged buildings in Amatrice; we need to look more broadly at similar failings around the world, she says

CNN  — 

The Amatrice earthquake gives us a chance to have a conversation today, a conversation that regrettably is always a day late.

These conversations start in the hours after a disaster, as they always do. They may last a news cycle and hopefully longer, but eventually they fade. They fade like the hopes of the affected families, who eventually become buried not just in the rubble of their homes but under a pile of national and international priorities that are seemingly more important than what happened to them on the day of the disaster.

Tracy Kijewski-Correa

There are few who will look at the images from Italy and consider that this could as easily have been them – their community, their family, their home. We comfort ourselves when we look at Amatrice and blame the aged buildings.

We may remind ourselves that we don’t live on a fault. However, it matters less how old those buildings were or even less that this destruction was at the hands of a relatively modest magnitude 6.2 earthquake.

If it is not an earthquake, then it is a tsunami, a hurricane or a tornado. No one can predict with certainty when the next will strike, a fact particularly relevant in the context of Italy, where seismologists have historically been held under deep scrutiny. And even if the natural disaster can be predicted and tracked on a radar to enable evacuations and save lives, its impacts and devastation cannot be mitigated as easily.

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    The simple fact is that development has concentrated the world’s lives and property in some of its most hazard-prone areas. The inevitable result is potential for particularly large life and economic loss, something that has unfortunately been confirmed far too often by such devastation.

    It is a devastation that does not discriminate: earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand, tsunamis in Southeast Asia and Japan. More often than not, it is not the magnitude of the event, but the vulnerability of its target. All we need do is look at Superstorm Sandy for a powerful reminder on our own shores. These disasters expose the frailty and vulnerability of not just a community’s infrastructure, but also the frailty and vulnerability of our perspectives on risk and resilience.

    As much as every disaster uniquely teaches us how to improve our capacity for response and recovery, there is one intervention that diminishes the needs for such plans: addressing the vulnerability of our infrastructure in the first place.

    Not just our public infrastructure, whose weakened condition in America has been widely documented, but our private investments, the homes where our children should feel safe. Addressing this vulnerability in a lasting way transcends simply understanding the scientific or engineering dimensions.

    We have seen before the vulnerability of unreinforced masonry construction. Whether the handiwork of ancient builders of the Mediterranean or the desperate attempts of a father to shelter his family in an informal settlement outside Port-au-Prince, these vulnerabilities are well understood.

    While engineers and scientists bear some responsibility in ensuring that such knowledge is effectively conveyed to stakeholders, officials and the public, what is more important today is to beg the bigger question of why vulnerable construction persists in the first place. Uncovering those root causes are even more critical than the technical aspects of why buildings fall down.

    As we learned in Haiti, Amatrice will reveal its own unique story of how complex social, political and economic forces intertwined to allow seismic risks to silently persist. The factors driving their acceptance have been long-present and are not unique to Italy. They require deep introspection to uncover and even greater courage to address.

    Problems that are easy to solve would have been solved already. Achieving disaster-resilient and sustainable communities is not an easy problem, but one worth solving. If not for the families of Haiti, Nepal, Ecuador and now Italy, then for the families of the next disaster.

    There are other Amatrices, just like there were other Port-au-Princes, silently waiting for their vulnerabilities to be exposed at nature’s hands. They dot the fault lines and coasts of developed and developing nations, governments that are prepared and unprepared, economies that are thriving and stagnant.

    As an engineer who views it as our ethical duty to fight for all vulnerable communities, the only solace I can find in the events of the last several days is the hope that this event provides the harsh light under which much needed remedies will finally be born. This is not the first time this light was turned on, and unless we keep the conversation going, keep that light shining and bravely step into it, not just the day afterward, but every day, it won’t be the last.