L'AQUILA, Italy – The earthquake that devastated this medieval town would likely have caused only limited damage in Japan and other affluent countries in quake-prone regions, but a variety of factors conspire to make Italy particularly vulnerable, experts said.
While L'Aquila sits about a half mile from the epicenter of Monday's 6.3-magnitude quake in the Apennine region of Abruzzo, geologists and civil engineers attributed most of the blame for damage on inadequate buildings.
"The collapses that occurred in Abruzzo involved houses that weren't built to withstand a quake that wasn't particularly violent," said Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology.
"We get all worked up after every earthquake, but it's not in our culture to construct buildings the right way in a quake zone — that is, build buildings that can resist (quakes) and retrofit old ones. This has never been done," Boschi said.
Franco Barberi, a leading geologist and disaster expert, expressed frustration about Italy's lack of protection for buildings in earthquake territory.
"What makes one angry is, if this happened in California or in Japan or some other country where for some time they have been practicing anti-seismic protection," a similar quake "wouldn't have caused a single death," Barberi said on state television.
Giorgio Croci, a Rome-based engineer and expert on ancient monuments like the Colosseum in the Italian capital, singled out building methods as a key factor in L'Aquila's damage.
Ancient Romans used high-quality mortar and stone to put up monuments and buildings that have lasted some 2,000 years, and Renaissance construction often boasted high-quality quarried stone and proper proportions, he said.
Builders in the impoverished medieval era, however, often skimped on the quality of materials and generally erected less massive buildings, he said. As a result, medieval structures are more likely to sustain substantial damage in a quake.
"If you live in an ancient building, you have to employ a policy of prevention," Croci said.
"You can improve such buildings," such as by adding chains to connect walls horizontally and limit their bouncing in a quake, he said. "Chains don't cost that much." Another technique is to use iron hooks to bind wooden beams to walls, he said.
Nearly half of Italy's territory is considered "dangerous" in terms of seismic activity, according to a 2008 report by Boschi and other Italian geologists and civil protection experts. But only 14 percent of buildings in that vulnerable swath meet seismic-safety standards, the report said.
In addition to the old structures, modern buildings in Italy — nondescript apartment houses and public buildings — often don't meet current standards in seismic safety.
Public works contracts, especially in Italy's south, are vulnerable to infiltration by organized crime, prosecutors say. Builders often don't use the best materials, being pressured by mobsters to rely on suppliers close to organized crime.
Only a few weeks ago, cheers rang out in a southern Italian courtroom when judges convicted five people in the 2002 collapse of a school in a 5.4-magnitude quake. Prosecutors alleged shoddy construction was a factor in the tragedy, which claimed 28 lives, including the small town's entire first grade.
The U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction said Monday that "buildings are the main killers when earthquakes strike." The U.N. noted that many of the old structures in L'Aquila did not meet modern seismic standards.