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Scholars Discuss Ways Communities Can Build ‘Back Better’ After Disaster

By Nicole Schaller

On May 8, a group of scholars gathered at the Italian Embassy to speak about earthquake reconstruction, focusing on resilience to natural disasters and specifically on rebuilding central Italy, which has been struck by a series of powerful earthquakes in recent years. From 2016 to 2017 alone, Italy experienced four earthquakes that killed 331 people, displaced thousands and destroyed infrastructure and some of the country’s most historic treasures.

Italy sits on top of the junction of three tectonic plates. With earthquakes striking the country on average ever four to five years, the speakers not only focused on how to rebuild towns affected by the 2016-17 earthquakes, but also how to prepare for the inevitable future temblors. The event, “Building Back Better: Resilience to Natural Disasters, Two Continents hit by Earthquakes,” was also sponsored by the Mexican Cultural Institute.

The panel discussed reconstruction efforts not only in Italy, but also in Mexico, which was struck by back-to-back quakes last year that killed hundreds, in addition to a 7.2-magnitude quake this past February. Italian photographer Jon Guido Bertelli was on hand to display his photographs that depicted the aftermath of earthquakes in both Italy and Mexico.

Rubble is seen in the Italian town of Amatrice following a 6.2-magnitude earthquake on Aug. 24, 2016, that killed nearly 300 people and caused widespread destruction of cultural sites, including ancient churches. (Photo: By terremocentroitalia terremocentroitalia from Italia - diegobianchi3.jpg / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

In Italy, the deadliest earthquake hit on Aug. 24, 2016, registering a 6.0 magnitude and a death toll of 297 people. The epicenter was in the town Accumoli. The other earthquakes occurred on Oct. 26 and Oct. 30, 2016, with a fourth 5.5-magnitude quake taking place on Jan. 18, 2017.

Vania Virgili is a senior scientific officer at the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics with a focus on the impact of science in relation to cultural heritage. She spoke about the cultural ramifications of the Italian earthquakes that go beyond just the physical damage.

“Culture is part of the environment,” said Virgili. “Already there are increasing technological advancements that might improve the risk of not only the modern buildings, but also the protection of historic ones, which includes protection of moveable and non-moveable cultural heritage.”

Examples that Virgili cited are paintings, churches and ancient buildings — the elements that give a town its character, history and identity. Many of Italy’s small mountain towns that were directly hit were home to structures dating to the Middle Ages that were demolished, like the basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia.

Emanuele Gissi, a commander in the Italian Fire and Rescue Service and an engineer, spoke about the immediate rescue efforts that include trying to preserve cultural heritage sites. Gissi was deployed during the recent earthquakes in Italy for several of the rescue missions.

Rescuers search for survivors in the rubble in the Italian town of Amatrice following a 6.2-magnitude earthquake on Aug. 24, 2016. (Photo: By terremocentroitalia terremocentroitalia from Italia - diegobianchi3.jpg / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

“After the first work of pulling people out of the rubble, we start thinking about the cultural heritage,” said Gissi. The work done by these groups is highly dangerous because of the possibility of potential aftershocks and falling debris in designated red zones. Gissi recalled one particular close call when his team’s attention shifted to cultural preservation.

He pointed to a picture of a demolished cathedral with no roof. “The day before the roof was still intact. Our teams were working on the roof of a cathedral because we were afraid that the rain would pour into the church and ruin the paintings on the walls,” he said. “At 7 a.m. the following day, a second aftershock happened. No one was working there luckily. Of course, our operators are safely attached to a crane so that if something like that happened, they would not lose their lives.”

Gissi, like Virgili, noted the advancements in technology that have helped the reconstruction of damaged historical buildings through various research initiatives, such as a partnership Gissi’s organization has with a network of European universities.

“Robots are capable of reconstructing a 3D model of damaged buildings,” Gissi said. “This 3D model was used by our technicians to design a [structure to prop up] and rescue damaged buildings. We have to protect what remains of these buildings and to save contents of the buildings. These are the kind of activities when the last person has been pulled out of the rubbles, we start recovering the soul of the communities.”

Massimo Sargolini, a professor in urban planning at Italy’s University of Camerino, also cited the importance of international research and collaboration to improve post-disaster reconstruction efforts. Most countries deal with natural disaster risk or crisis at some point.

Sargolini explained how countries working collectively can more effectively deal with disaster before and after it strikes. Sargolini noted that the Italian Research Institute participates with other European universities as well as three American universities “to create a network to help [generate] ideas or guidelines our government can use after a disaster. The main objective of this research is to prepare the population and to build back better.”

On that note, Keith Porter, a professor specializing in earthquake engineering at University of Colorado in Boulder, spoke about the necessity of updating building codes and constructing stronger structures that are better able to withstand future earthquakes. 


Nicole Schaller is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat.



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