Italy muzzled scientist who predicted quake

ROME Mon Apr 6, 2009 5:38pm BST

Residents walk past destroyed houses after an earthquake in the Italian village of Onna April 6, 2009. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

Residents walk past destroyed houses after an earthquake in the Italian village of Onna April 6, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Alessia Pierdomenico

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ROME (Reuters) - An Italian scientist predicted a major earthquake around L'Aquila weeks before disaster struck the city on Monday, killing more than 100 people, but was reported to authorities for spreading panic.

The government on Monday insisted the warning, by seismologist Gioacchino Giuliani, had no scientific foundation but Giuliani said he had been vindicated and wanted an apology.

The first tremors in the region were felt in mid-January and continued at regular intervals, creating mounting alarm in the medieval city, about 100 km (60 miles) east of Rome.

Vans with loudspeakers drove around the town a month ago telling locals to evacuate their houses after Giuliani, from the National Institute of Astrophysics, predicted a large quake was on the way, prompting the mayor's anger.

Giuliani, who based his forecast on concentrations of radon gas around seismically active areas, was reported to police for "spreading alarm" and was forced to remove his findings from the Internet.

"Now there are people who have to apologize to me and who will have what has happened on their conscience," Giuliani told the website of the daily La Repubblica.

Giuliani, who lives in L'Aquila and developed his findings while working at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in the surrounding Abruzzo region, said he was helpless to act on Sunday as it became clear to him the quake was imminent.

"I didn't know who to turn to, I had been put under investigation for saying there was going to be an earthquake."

AGENCY REASSURED TOWNSPEOPLE

As the media asked whether, in light of his warnings, the government had protected the population properly, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi seemed on the defensive at a news conference.

He said people should concentrate on relief efforts for now and "we can discuss afterwards about the predictability of earthquakes."

Italy's Civil Protection agency held a meeting of the Major Risks Committee, grouping scientists charged with assessing such risks, in L'Aquila on March 31 to reassure the townspeople.

"The tremors being felt by the population are part of a typical sequence ... (which is) absolutely normal in a seismic area like the one around L'Aquila," the agency said in a statement on the eve of that meeting.

It said it saw no reason for alarm but was nonetheless carrying out "continuous monitoring and attention."

The head of the agency, Guido Bertolaso, referred back to that meeting at Monday's joint news conference with Berlusconi.

"There is no possibility of predicting an earthquake, that is the view of the international scientific community," he said.

Enzo Boschi, the head of the National Geophysics Institute, said the real problem for Italy was a long-standing failure to take proper precautions despite a history of tragic quakes.

"We have earthquakes but then we forget and do nothing. It's not in our culture to take precautions or build in an appropriate way in areas where there could be strong earthquakes," he said.

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