Earthquake!

Thomas Jones

It isn’t just buildings that crumble in earthquakes, it’s language, too. Clichés fall apart: safe as houses, old as the hills, solid ground. Other words slough off their figurative encrustations and regain their specificity: epicentre, seismic shift. The magnitude 6.5 earthquake that hit Norcia at 7.40 a.m. on Sunday, 30 October was Italy’s biggest since 1980. I live in Orvieto, 50 miles west of the epicentre, near enough for the ground motions to shake the house and make it sway, but far enough away for them not to do any damage. It took less than thirty seconds for the shockwaves to reach us, another thirty seconds for them to pass by. Half a minute is a long time to wait for your house not to fall down.

I don’t know if it was the shaking that woke me, or my six-year-old daughter shouting ‘Earthquake!’ as she ran from her bedroom. She’d been frightened by the tremors on the evening of Wednesday, 26 October (her three-year-old brother slept through them), but when the schools reopened that Friday – they were closed on Thursday for a structural once-over – her geography teacher gave the children an off-curriculum lesson on earthquakes, including what to do in one, which she clearly found reassuring. We gathered in a doorway in a supporting wall (the wall is two feet thick, so there was just about room for four of us), away from windows and mirrors and bookcases and anything else that might shatter or fall on us, following the advice of the Civil Protection Department – and, more to the point, the geography teacher.

One of the strangest things about being in an earthquake – apart from the feeling of being at the top of a thirty-foot birch tree in a thirty-mile-an-hour wind when you’re actually crouching on the floor of your house – is how eerily quiet it is. I’d have expected a shockwave rippling along the surface of the earth to make a lot of noise, like the roar of surf or a howling gale. But the only sound I remember was the plates rattling in the sideboard as the first shudders began. For the next twenty seconds or so the house felt as though it was shaking rapidly from side to side, but after those motions subsided it rocked slowly front to back a few times like a pendulum. For a few long seconds it seemed possible that, instead of returning to equilibrium after the end of a swing, the house would just keep going and topple over.

Once the shaking finished, it was easy enough to see that the danger was largely illusory, like on a fairground ride (though fairground rides have been known to fail and collapse). Orvieto was well outside the zone of ‘very strong perceived shaking’. The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale is a way of measuring the felt effects of earthquakes. Named for the 19th-century Italian volcanologist Giuseppe Mercalli, it’s denoted in Roman numerals and ranges from I, ‘Not felt’, to X, ‘Extreme’. As the US Geological Survey says, the Mercalli Scale ‘does not have a mathematical basis; instead it is an arbitrary ranking based on observed effects.’ ‘Very strong’ is level VII: ‘Damage negligible in buildings of good design and construction; slight to moderate in well-built ordinary structures; considerable damage in poorly built or badly designed structures; some chimneys broken.’ I’d have said, based on my experience, that what we felt in Orvieto was ‘Strong’ (level VI): ‘Felt by all, many frightened. Some heavy furniture moved; a few instances of fallen plaster. Damage slight.’ But I live in a flat on the top two floors of a four-storey building; some people who were outside didn’t feel the tremors at all. Perhaps it was only ‘Moderate’, or even ‘Light’ (level IV) – ‘Felt indoors by many, outdoors by few during the day. At night, some awakened. Dishes, windows, doors disturbed; walls make cracking sound. Sensation like heavy truck striking building’ – though I’m not sure that doesn’t sound worse than ‘some heavy furniture moved.’

In Norcia, four miles from the epicentre, there was ‘considerable damage’. The 14th-century basilica of Saint Benedict was one of several buildings to collapse. The monks (@monksofnorcia) tweeted the news. (Their first response was to get down on their knees; if praying does nothing for you, there may be safety, or at least reassurance, or the illusion of control, in numbers: I’ve been glued to the list of earthquakes on the website and Twitter feed of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, @INGVterremoti.) A video of nuns running to safety with the help of firefighters spread quickly across the internet, as did film taken by hunters of the forest trembling, and helicopter footage of the large cracks that have appeared in Monte Vettore. ‘We monks are all well,’ the Benedictine vice-prior in Norcia told the press, ‘but our hearts go out to those who’ve been affected, and the brothers are trying to find out if anyone is in need of extreme unction.’ Luckily enough, no one was: there were, remarkably, no fatalities from Sunday’s earthquake.

One of the main reasons no one was killed was that a lot of people had left the danger zone after the earthquakes four days earlier. Then, too, there were no fatalities (I’m discounting three heart attacks), again largely because a lot of places were evacuated between the first quake at 7.10 p.m. and the second, bigger one two hours later. People were already preparing to sleep in their cars, or just inside their front doors. The second quake was followed by an apocalyptic thunderstorm, and it was easy to imagine how under an older system of superstition people could have believed that Jupiter and Neptune, the rivalrous gods of thunder and earthquakes, were at war. In retrospect, the earlier quakes look like warnings, but that’s a fallacy: for one thing, there’s no way of knowing a foreshock is a foreshock until the big one hits and downgrades it; for another, you can’t rely on a big earthquake being preceded by one or more slightly smaller ones – it may be, or it may come out of nowhere.

Seismologists are able to say how likely it is that an earthquake of a certain magnitude will occur on a certain fault within a certain time period, but there is no way (yet) of predicting precisely when and where an earthquake will strike. Enzo Boschi, then head of the INGV, said on 31 March 2009 that a powerful earthquake in L’Aquila was unlikely ‘in the short term’, ‘but the possibility cannot be totally excluded’. Unluckily for him, and a great many other people, six days later the city was all but levelled by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake and 309 people were killed. In October 2012, Boschi was found guilty of manslaughter; two years later the verdict was overturned on appeal; and a year ago the supreme court confirmed his innocence.

On Friday, 28 October, the current head of the INGV, Carlo Doglioni, gave an interview to La Repubblica, to ‘answer the questions that everyone’s asking about Wednesday’s earthquakes’. They weren’t unexpected, he said, and didn’t take seismologists by surprise. What happened was that a piece of land eleven miles long, six miles wide and five miles deep dropped by slightly more than half a metre. They didn’t know exactly when it would happen, but the INGV and Protezione Civile were ready for it. The southern end of this fragment of crust had already fallen on 24 August, in the magnitude 6 earthquake that killed 298 people, most of them in the town of Amatrice.

Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, has repeatedly vowed that every town, every village, every house will be rebuilt. His latest budget exceeds EU borrowing limits; he says it’s justified because of the need for extraordinary spending on two emergencies: repairing earthquake damage and the migrant crisis. More than 100,000 people have been made homeless in the past week by the earthquakes; nearly 160,000 people have arrived on Italy’s shores so far this year, and 4220 have drowned trying to get there, including at least 240 on an inflatable boat that capsized off the Libyan coast on 3 November. If other EU countries won’t take their share of immigrants, Renzi says, they won’t get their share of Italian money either. He’s talking tough partly for the benefit of a domestic audience; he’s staked his job on the outcome of a referendum on constitutional reform on 4 December.

Rebuilding the towns destroyed by the earthquakes will be expensive, and will take time. When Assisi was restored after the 1997 earthquake, Giotto’s frescoes, or a version of them, went back up on the walls of the Basilica of St Francis. Some plaster fell in Orvieto cathedral on Sunday, but Signorelli’s frescoes of the Last Judgment – the dead climbing out of the broken ground; the blessed and the damned queueing at the frontiers of heaven and hell – were undamaged. In theory, all construction work in seismic zones – and Italy has the most detailed seismic risk maps of any country in the world – has to conform to strict regulations, but in practice a lot of it doesn’t. One of the reasons fewer people die in earthquakes in Japan, as Doglioni put it, is that the Japanese ‘respect the anti-seismic norms in a much more precise manner than we do’. In Amatrice, a school that was built in 2012, and should have been strong enough to withstand the tremors, collapsed completely. The mayor and the contractor were quick to blame each other.

The swarms of aftershocks have been almost continuous, one every couple of minutes, several of them on Sunday of magnitude 4 or above. I sometimes think I can feel them. Shortly after two o’clock on Tuesday morning I jumped out of bed convinced the house was wobbling, but it was only me. One of the biggest aftershocks so far was at 1.30 on Thursday morning, magnitude 4.7, which I didn’t notice at all, though I wouldn’t say I’m getting used to them. I’m still a relative novice. I slept through the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009, and was in England when Amatrice was hit two months ago. The first time I felt an earthquake was on 30 May this year, at 10.24 p.m., when there was a magnitude 4.1 quake seven miles west of Orvieto. There was a rumbling that time. At first I thought the downstairs neighbour, a keen practitioner of DIY, was engaged in some late-night drilling. Then I thought the washing machine had gone into overdrive. By the time I realised what it was, the earthquake was over.

Asked if geologists had learned anything new from this year’s quakes, Doglioni said they had, ‘something important’: an earthquake in which the ground drops is far more damaging to buildings than one in which the ground rises. If the ground is pushing upwards, ‘the buildings increase in weight and are more stable … but when the ground drops, the houses lose weight and open up like a house of cards.’ It’s unpleasant enough to huddle in a doorway, waiting for your house to stop feeling like a ship on a choppy sea, or an aeroplane in turbulent air; I can’t imagine, and trust I will never know, what it feels like when the ground drops away beneath your feet. On the plus side, shaking the house around a bit seems to have sorted out whatever the problem was with the stopcock in the cistern in the upstairs toilet.