Italy earthquake exposes poor building standards

ROME Tue Apr 7, 2009 5:57pm BST

ROME (Reuters) - L'Aquila's new public hospital was hailed as a state-of-the-art, earthquake-proof building when it opened in 2000. But it collapsed along with many centuries-old monuments in the earthquake that struck the city Monday.

The San Salvatore hospital, evacuated after its walls gave way, forcing doctors to treat quake victims and ordinary patients in a courtyard, has exposed inadequate infrastructure in the area.

As the death toll from Italy's worst earthquake since 1980 topped 200, shocked Italians asked how modern buildings -- not just historic churches and stone houses -- could crumble into pieces in a region known for its high seismic risk.

"Once again we are faced with the lack of control on the quality of construction," Franco Barberi, who heads a committee assessing earthquake risks at Italy's Civil Protection agency, told reporters in L'Aquila.

"In California, an earthquake like this one would not have killed a single person," he said.

Many raised the suspicion that the hospital, like other structures in Italy, was built with a less than scrupulous respect for anti-seismic building codes.

"I am really startled that a reinforced concrete hospital in a highly seismic zone can be so devastated to be declared off-limits. It's absurd," said architect Paolo Rocchi, a university professor on the conservation of historic buildings.

"If a structure is built following proper anti-seismic procedures, it can suffer damage, but it should still manage to withstand even a very destructive quake," he told La Stampa newspaper Tuesday.

In a country littered with illegal buildings and construction eyesores, experts blamed the use of low-quality cement and inadequate supporting iron rods, saying tens of thousands of palaces, schools and hospitals were at risk.

Gian Michele Calvi, chairman of the European center for research in earthquake engineering, said that 80,000 public buildings in Italy were still unsafe despite the enforcement of construction regulations after previous natural disasters,

Of these 22,000 were schools in seismic areas. Of another 16,000 buildings in zones considered at risk, 9,000 were not built with modern anti-seismic criteria, he said.

That will come as no surprise to the parents of 26 children killed in San Giuliano di Puglia in 2002 when a quake flattened their village school.

After surveying the rubble-strewn streets of L'Aquila, where two-thirds of the buildings lie in ruins, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the government would rebuild a new, quake-proof town within 24 to 28 months.

"We could not have had a magic wand (before the quake) to turn all the old buildings into anti-seismic ones," he said, pledging that all new structures would be built to the highest of modern standards.