ROME (Reuters) - The basilica of Saint Benedict in the medieval town of Norcia swayed but held up last week when a 6.2 magnitude earthquake rocked mountainous central Italy.
Just 24 km (15 miles) away in Amatrice, which used to bill itself as the town of 100 churches, the historic center was flattened and not a single holy place escaped undamaged.
The fact that a town in the main quake zone was largely unscathed while others have been crushed might have a lot to do with the vagaries of seismic shocks, which can bring disproportionate damage depending on land formation.
But it might also be because picture-postcard Norcia has consistently invested in anti-seismic protection for its ancient buildings, while its less famous neighbors have not.
Norcia represents the exception, not the rule in Italy, where the majority of buildings were constructed more than a century ago, well before anti-seismic norms were introduced. The question is whether the heavily indebted country has the will and the money to safeguard all its homes and cultural treasures.
Italy is home to more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other nation, with architectural and artistic masterpieces ranging from Greek and Roman remains to the frescoes of the late Mediaeval painter Giotto and residences or “palazzi” of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
But it is also an active seismic zone, experiencing 36 earthquakes with a magnitude of 5 and above since 1900. Almost every one has brought death and destruction, with nearly 300 people dying in the latest disaster.
Such tragedies inevitably trigger rounds of recriminations about why successive governments haven’t done more to defend Italians’ lives and heritage.
“We should get to the churches, monuments and palazzi before the quakes do, but we always end up chasing them,” says Paolo Clemente from Italy’s multidisciplinary research center ENEA. “If everything is left as it is, our cultural heritage is destined to die...”.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, like other leaders before him, has promised a renewed push to bolster the flimsy earthquake defenses and met the celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano on Sunday to help devise a national prevention plan.
But like many Italians, Renzi has a fatalistic streak.
“It’s illusory to think you can control everything,” he said last Thursday. “It’s hard to imagine that (this disaster) could have been avoided simply using different building technology. We’re talking about towns dating back to the Middle Ages.”
Many experts disagree, saying Italy’s towns and cities can be protected so long as you have a very deep pocket.
“It is possible to reconcile (artistic) beauty with security when you have money,” said Caterina Bon Valsassina, Italy’s director general of cultural heritage, arts and landscape. “Once we were rich, but we aren’t anymore.”
Some 40 billion euros ($45 billion) would be needed to secure Italy’s public buildings, according to the National Engineers’ Association. The bill would go up to 360 billion euros to upgrade all the building stock, the country’s employers association Confindustria estimates.
Italy has the largest debt mountain in the European Union as a proportion of its output after Greece, and its economy has barely grown in the last 17 years. This means there is very little money for major new budget items, such as nationwide earthquake-proofing.
Government adviser Mauro Grassi says Italy should spend 4 billion euros a year for the next 20 years on disaster prevention programs, arguing that this is roughly what the country is spending now on disaster response and reconstruction.
But even if it did, there is no guarantee it would be spent wisely, with corruption, bureaucracy, shoddy workmanship and organized crime all lurking in the shadows.
Amatrice’s main school was reopened in 2012 after the local authorities spent 700,000 euros on a refurbishment, including anti-seismic protection. It now lies in ruins.
“If these buildings had been constructed like they are in Japan, then they would not have collapsed,” prosecutor Giuseppe Saieva, who is leading an inquiry into why so many buildings collapsed last week, told la Repubblica newspaper.
The reconstruction effort in L‘Aquila, a 13th century city walloped by an earthquake in 2009, is still many years from completion. Seven building contractors were arrested in 2014 on allegations they were working with the Mafia.
Other delays have been caused by often bewildering red tape that would surely snarl any significant campaign to retrofit buildings with anti-seismic protection.
A recently introduced code for assigning public work contracts includes 220 norms. It is designed to root out graft but local authorities say it is a tangled nightmare to follow.
Ironically, not all the money that is currently offered by the government to encourage individuals to safeguard their property is used, partly because of bureaucracy.
Following the L‘Aquila calamity, the government earmarked almost 1 billion euros for earthquake programs, but only 700 million euros have been committed to defined projects.
In Amatrice, the local region said funds could be spent only on primary residences, despite the fact that many of the properties were secondary, holiday homes. A town clerk then forgot to put in the applications for the handful of local people who had applied for help, missing the deadline.
Experts say that in Italy’s old towns and villages, where houses are often crammed together around small squares and narrow lanes, everyone has to retrofit their homes to make it worthwhile. An earthquake proof house can survive a bad tremor only for an unproofed house to collapse into it and destroy it.
With limited resources, working out priorities is tough.
About 500 hospitals and 28,000 schools in at-risk areas do not have anti-seismic cover. Many of Italy’s 51 UNESCO heritage sites are found in earthquake zones, such as the central hill town of Assisi, which was badly damaged in a 1997 quake.
It also has 6,000 sites of historical or artistic interest.
“Some hamlets might not have Giotto frescoes, but they are the expression of the beauty and culture of Italy. It is a complex beauty to protect...,” says Fabio Carapezza Guttuso, a top manager of the Italian Culture Ministry.
However, the experience of Norcia shows protection is possible, with the small town upgrading its defenses in response to a 1979 earthquake that killed five and left 2,000 homeless.
Although the town’s famed Monastery of St. Benedict was damaged on Wednesday, it did not collapse. Nor did any other building within Norcia’s ancient walls.
“Since the earthquake that hit the valley in 1979, the mayors and the community have worked hard to spend public funds well in order to become resilient,” Norcia mayor Nicola Alemanno told Reuters. “Prevention is an investment for the long-run.”
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Editing by Crispian Balmer and David Stamp