A Nice Glass of Montepulciano: Risk, Lies, and Politics in the L’Aquila Earthquake

“the scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable”.

Bernardo De Bernardinis, dismissing the risk of a major earthquake at L’Aquila on March 31, 2009…5 days before 309 people died in a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in the city.

De Bernardinis – together with senior Italian scientists Enzo Boschi, Giulio Selvaggi, Franco Barberi, Claudio Eva, Mauro Dolce, and Gian Michele Calvi – ultimately had cause to regret the flippancy he displayed in this press conference. As has been widely reported the seven, then members of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were found guilty of manslaughter in an ensuing trial and sentenced to 6 years in prison.

That outcome is still under appeal, but this case and its ramifications continue to reverberate through the world of science.

Like many the world over, I was stunned and outraged by the verdict in October last year (see my original blog post Fairy Tales on Shaky Ground – Scientific understanding and the Italian court system – WordPress 25/10/2012). That original response though was not a proud moment in my record as a researcher and analyst. My rush to public pronouncement before I had gathered the full facts of the case could almost have come straight from the 2GB talk radio playbook.

Having had cause to look further into the trial and its participants over the ensuing months, while I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve undergone a Damascene conversion, I have come to appreciate that this case is more nuanced and complex than I had originally assumed…and a much more compelling tale for that.

To dismiss a red herring up front: this was never about earthquake prediction. The seven were not prosecuted – as many commentators in the English-speaking press initially suggested – for failing to forecast the earthquake, or for neglecting to advise the evacuation of the city. Rather, the case was brought for undermining public safety by providing – in the words of Fabio Picuti, the public prosecutor in the case – “inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information” about the dangers of seismic activity occurring in L’Aquila in the weeks leading up to April 2009.

The L’Aquila earthquake was no bolt from the blue. As we can see in this map, L’Aquila lies at the heart of one of the zones of highest seismic risk in the tectonically active Italian peninsula – and as I noted in my earlier blog, the city has been devastated by earthquakes on no fewer than 7 recorded historical occasions, dating back to 1315.

Earthquake Hazard Map for the Italian Peninsula, showing the peak ground acceleration with a 10% probability of being exceeded in 50 years. For reference, a ground acceleration of 0.001g is perceptible by people, at 0.02g people can lose their balance, and at 0.1g light property damage can be expected. Produced by the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, 2005.

Earthquake Hazard Map for the Italian Peninsula, showing the peak ground acceleration with a 10% probability of being exceeded in 50 years. For reference, a ground acceleration of 0.001g is perceptible by a careful observer, at 0.02g people can lose their balance, and at 0.1g light property damage can be expected. Produced by the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, 2005.

In the face of this record, it’s no wonder that public concern was high when a series of significant seismic tremors were felt in the city during the spring of 2009. This concern was further sharpened by the pronouncements – widely condemned in the scientific community – of laboratory technician Giampaolo Giuliani, who attracted wide publicity with his claims that variations in radon gas levels indicated an imminent large earthquake in the area.

Against this climate of public anxiety, the seven members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks – the L’Aquila Seven, as they have become widely labelled – were given the task of evaluating the risk these tremors represented, and duly met in the tense and shaky city on March 31st, 2009.

According to Giulio Selvaggi – a member of that ill-starred seven, and director of the Italian National Earthquake Centre – the scientific consensus expressed at the meeting was anything but reassuring. “If you live in L’Aquila, even if there’s no swarm [of earthquakes],” Selvaggi is on record as saying, “you can never say, ‘No problem.’ You can never say that in a high-risk region.” Notably, Selvaggi’s claim of appropriate caution and respect for uncertainty among the scientists on the panel is supported by the official minutes of the proceedings.

So how did this message of watchful preparedness become De Bernardinis’ dismissive ‘the scientists say don’t worry your pretty little heads about it’?

Therein turns the tale.

You’d struggle to suspend disbelief if this turned up in a Dan Brown pot boiler, but the narrative gods smile upon us here. It turns out that De Bernardinis’ then boss – Guido Bertolaso, Director of the Italian Civil Defense committee – was having his phone tapped by the police at the time this episode was unfolding (due to unrelated ongoing corruption investigations…ah, Italy, land of simple honest folk and open government).

In setting up the Commission meeting with L’Aquila town councilor Daniela Stati, Bertolaso was recorded as saying:

“So they, the best seismology experts, will say: “This is normal, these phenomena happen. It is better to have 100 level 4 Richter scale tremors rather than nothing. Because 100 tremors are useful for dispersing energy, so there will never be the dangerous quake. Do you understand?”

Remember, this is the day before the Commission meeting in L’Aquila.

Sound familiar? It should – that’s pretty much point for point the story De Bernardinis offered at the post-meeting press conference – as quoted in the introduction to this post.

Warming to his ‘keep calm and carry on’ message, when asked by a journalist at that press conference if the public should sit back and enjoy a glass of wine rather than worry about earthquakes, De Bernardinis famously replied: “Absolutely, absolutely, a Montepulciano” – playing to the gallery in favouring that deep-hued rustic red from the local Abruzzo region.

“Absolutely, absolutely, a Montepulciano” – words that came back to haunt spokesman Bernardo De Bernardinis.

De Bernardinis has subsequently claimed that he was merely trying to summarise the view of the scientists at the meeting – but his erstwhile colleagues dispute this strongly. There is no mention of the ‘seismic discharge’ idea in the official minutes, and Boschi, Selvaggi and the other indicted scientists stated unequivocally during the trial that De Bernardinis was making remarks along these lines before the Commission proceedings even got underway.

The balance of evidence then would appear to indicate that those scientifically invalid, overly reassuring comments were essentially a scripted message De Bernardinis had been sent along with by his political master – with the meeting laid out as nothing more than an elaborate public relations event to dismiss the concerns of the local residents.

Indeed, as a PR exercise, the initial press conference was an unqualified success…and it is to that ‘success’ that the L’Aquila Seven owe their subsequent prosecution. To quote Simona Giannangeli, a lawyer representing 8 bereaved families in the court case:

“You could almost hear a sigh of relief go through the town. It was repeated almost like a mantra: the more tremors, the less danger.”

Calming mantra it may have been. Sadly, it was also fatally inaccurate. Minor tremors do not pre-sage a significant earthquake in any meaningful way…but nor do they lessen the risk as De Bernardinis had implied.

That fateful statement was ultimately costly for many, with the trial judge recognising ‘a direct causal link’ between those comforting pronouncements on behalf of the Commission and the deaths of 29 victims – largely residents who are reported to have forgone, expressly on the basis of the Commission’s reassurances, their traditional precautionary response of sleeping outdoors, or hurrying outside at the first sign of a tremor.

De Bernardinis looks pretty bad in all this – as does his former boss Bertolaso, who many commentators have suggested should have joined the seven men in the dock. What of the other six though – the scientific members of the Commission. Are they just blameless dupes, unfairly ensnared by the machinations of a Machiavellian public servant?

Where my view has changed on this point is that now, regrettably, I think not.

Don’t get me wrong here – I don’t for a moment consider that culpability for manslaughter is something that can reasonably be laid at their door – Selvaggi and his colleagues were just one link in a long chain of causation and negligence leading to the many tragic outcomes in this episode. Where the snow-white credibility of the group starts to drift though is that these were not just 6 scientists meeting in the cafe over a glass of wine (Montepulciano or not) to discuss the situation. This was a legally constituted committee of experts, convened in L’Aquila by the Italian government specifically to address not just the seismic risk itself, but public perceptions of that risk.

Franco Barberi, a volcanologist at the University of Rome and the Commission’s then-vice-president, stood alongside De Bernardinis at that March press conference. He could have turned to his colleague and said – in impeccably stylish Italian phrasing of course – “Whoa up there Bernardo, which meeting were you just at, ‘cos that’s not what we were saying.”

Okay though, let’s give Barberi a free pass on that one for now – anyone can be ambushed, caught off-balance in the glare of the spotlight, after all. But Barberi and the other members of the committee then had every opportunity to think over De Bernardinis’ widely reported comments in the following days – to see how they were being presented by the media, and the effect they were having on public opinion and actions. If they felt that the statements were inaccurate or inappropriate, they could have made their feelings known and corrected the apparent mis-representations for the benefit of the people of L’Aquila.

None of them did.

Any of the 6 scientists could have, at any point in the next 5 days, put out a press release saying “actually, that stuff that’s being reported in the papers, that’s (a) scientifically inaccurate, and (b) not a reflection of what we concluded at the meeting” or – and this is the important one – “remember, earthquakes can’t be reliably predicted, and L’Aquila is in a zone of high seismic risk – all residents should take whatever precautions they feel are appropriate any time they are concerned about tremors”. That’s all it would have taken.

But they didn’t.

Instead the 309 victims of the L’Aquila earthquake went to their graves that April night believing that the falsely comforting words offered by De Bernardinis at the press conference carried the imprimatur of Selvaggi and the other scientists on the committee.

Here is where the fault lies for the scientists. Their willingness to abrogate responsibility for the discussion of seismic risk and scientific uncertainty to De Bernardinis – the one non-scientist on the Commission panel that March evening, let’s not forget – is like the Chief Financial Officer of a major corporation handing off the presentation of the accounts to the head of public relations.

While our metaphorical PR executive should, we would hope, be competent in their own field, they may lack the expertise and authority to speak for the financial state of the company…and worse they could well – as De Bernardinis clearly did – have their own agenda to push. If things then go all GFC and the company’s financial report turns out to have been an artful construction of smoke and mirrors, the responsibility ultimately comes back to the CFO for their inappropriate delegation and dereliction of duty. If you’re the one who lets ‘the smartest guys in the room’ get away with it, you ultimately have to share the fall out – just ask David Duncan, former Lead Partner for the Enron account at the (equally former) Arthur Andersen accounting firm.

Perhaps the final word though should go to public prosecutor Fabio Picuti:

“I’m not crazy. I know they can’t predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila. They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors, and they did not.”

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