The scientific community generally agrees that earthquakes cannot be predicted with a high degree of accuracy, yet six seismologists and one government official have been found guilty of manslaughter in the 2009 L'Aquila, Italy earthquake. The earthquake claimed 309 lives and caused extensive damage to the city. Citizens and legal prosecutors were angered by the way that the situation was handled. Franco Barberi, Enzo Boschi, Giulio Selvaggi, Gian Michele Calvi, Mauro Dolce, and Bernardo De Bernardinis were sentenced to six years in prison, monetary fines to be paid out to the families of victims, and they are prohibited from serving the public.
With small seismic activity occurring weeks before the earthquake, the seven members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks Commission conducted a meeting to evaluate the situation. Six days before the earthquake occurred, a press release was issued where the commission stated that “while a major earthquake was not impossible, it was not likely.” Many citizens felt that this statement reassured them not to take precautions and causing them to be unprepared. The scientific community feels that the ruling of this case will now discourage seismologists and other public figures from sharing their predictions for fear of punishment if their prediction or advice is wrong.
This controversial case points to the need for clearer messages that warn the public of risks and the potential consequences. Even though seismologists cannot give an exact date, time, and location of when an earthquake can occur, alerting citizens of possible risks can mitigate the damages and emotional distress that people will experience. People should be aware of the limitations of predicting an earthquake, and be cautious of the messages they hear. They are also encouraged to be prepared for a disaster that could strike at any time.
For information on how to properly prepare for an earthquake read FEMA’s article on “Practicing Safety and “Shaking Out”
Christian Science Monitor
New York Times
BBC News - Some of the political fallout