Italian quake scientists 'deserved jail'

23:46, Feb 20 2013

The scientists who failed to adequately warn the public of an earthquake which killed hundreds of people deserved to go to jail, an Italian academic says.

Giuseppe Pellegrini, from the University of Padua, spoke at a disaster communication symposium today about the lessons which could be learned from the L'Aquila earthquake of 2009.

After four months of continuing seismologic activity, Pellegrini said there was an emergency meeting on March 31, 2009 in L'Aquila with the State Risk Commission, which was made up of scientists who "advised Italian policy makers".

The scientists left without speaking, with only an official telling journalists that there was no danger.

"They said it was a favourable situation," Pellegrini said.

"They told people to go home and have some wine."

Six days later, the L'Aquila earthquake destroyed the city, killing 309 people. Most people were asleep when the quake struck in the early hours of April 6.

In June 2010, six scientists and one former government official went on trial for manslaughter, accused of failing to warn the public of the impending danger of the earthquake.

The seven people had been at the emergency risk meeting and were convicted for giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information".

"They were told they had been falsely re-assuring," Pellegrini said.

Pellegrini said he believed the scientists deserved to go to prison for their in-action.

"Yes, I think in this situation ... We didn't have the participation with scientists in public sphere."

However, he believed that the six years of prison they were sentenced to was "too much for bad communication".

He said the Italian policymakers had used a "top down approach" which did not allow the public access to the information they needed.

"I think it could be much more useful to propose a simpler process in which questions and answers are managed in a circular motion," he said.

"The information in the L'Aquila case should have been much more freely shared."

Scientists should 'front up'

Scientists should use their knowledge to help minimise the impact of a natural disaster, geologist Mark Quigley says.

Quigley, a University of Canterbury scientist, was speaking at a symposium on disasters and science communication in Christchurch today.

"We are obligated to use our knowledge and expertise to minimize all impacts of the disaster in any way possible," he told the gathering of about 100 scientists and science communicators.

"We are obligated to conduct and publish science relevant to future hazard in a timely, rigorous and transparent fashion."

Scientists' obligation to share their information about earthquakes will be a hot topic at the conference today.

Later today, Italian academic Giuseppe Pellegrin will speak about the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila where six scientists were convicted of manslaughter for failing to give adequate warnings about the likelihood of the earthquake.

Quigley said he believed scientists needed to "front up" after a disaster and "say something with some meat in it".

"We want to be perceived as being open and honest."

While it was "a challenge" to get scientists to share their research before it was published, Quigley said it was crucial in communicating with the public.

"Most scientists are not comfortable publishing in increments. We usually see communication as the end game," he said.

"We need to involve the public in stories as they evolve, not just when they are complete."

The symposium will run for the rest of today and tomorrow.

'Lives cannot be saved by knowledge'

Information given to the public about earthquake science may have contributed to more deaths in the 2011 Japanese earthquake, a specialist from Tokyo says.

Satoko Oki spoke about the Tohoku earthquake which killed more than 15,000 people - most of whom drowned in a tsunami caused by the ground movement.

"We have to admit that the limitations of earthquake science enlarged the disaster in Japan," she said.

Oki said in some cases earthquake scientists' information had misled the public into thinking they were safe when they weren't.

"Almost all of the victims were alive in the first 30 minutes after the quake.

"For the sake of saving people's lives we have to emphasise the limitations of earthquake science."

In one coastal city, residents believed they were protected by 8-metre-high walls around the city.

The first tsunami warning had only been for 3m high and residents believed they were safe, Oki said.

A second warning 30 minutes later doubled the warning to 6m high.

"There was a blackout and no-one heard the information," Oki said.

Nearly 100 people in the city died.

In Kamaishi city, 65 per cent of those killed by the disaster died in the areas which were outside an area designated the "dangerous zone" on a hazard map.

The hazard map was designed by looking at the region's last tsunami, showing how high the water went.

"Those who utilised information from earthquake science were victimised," she said.

It was essential scientists "communicate their uncertainty and limitations of their science" to prevent cases like this happening, Oki said.

In many cases those who ignored the maps and went as high as possible were saved.

In Kamaishi, a group of 3000 school children in the safe zone survived by going to higher ground than the map suggested.

"They were told to ignore the hazard map and always go as high as possible," Oki said.

"Communicating the limitation and uncertainty of earthquake science to school children saved their lives."

After a question and answer session, Oki clarified to the group that she was not suggesting people should ignore all information surrounding earthquakes.

"We just need to make people aware of the limitations."


The Press