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Boston Visit Raises Hopes for More Discussion About L’Aquila Earthquake and Consequences

The following letter was sent to Rosetta Romagnoli, president of the Federazione Associazioni Abruzzesi U.S.A, from Barnaby Gunning, after visiting Boston in March, 2013, to raise awareness of the persisting problems in L’Aquila four years after the devastating earthquake that shattered the city center.

Dear Rosetta,

[…]I am writing to thank you for having persisted so tenaciously in organizing for me and my family to visit Boston this March and for having made the visit such a success for us. Our stay in Boston and then New York was tremendously inspiring on a number of levels and, I hope, it will prove to have a lasting impact on the work we have been doing in and for L’Aquila.

From the outset, the L’Aquila 3D project has sought to build strong connections between the city and citizens of L’Aquila and volunteers and experts elsewhere in the world.

Our short stay in Boston was particularly useful in this sense and it was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to present the project to the Boston Italian community and to have been able to participate in the two events organized by MIT.


The first evening at MIT – ‘Science on trial’ – was focussed on the issues surrounding the recent sentencing of seven scientists, who as part of the Commissione Grandi Rischi gave false reassurance in the days preceding the L’Aquila earthquake. This unprecedented legal decision sent shockwaves through the scientific world when it was announced late last year but superficial reporting of the sentencing has meant that the real issues behind the decision have rarely been discussed outside L’Aquila.

There were three presentations, moderated by John Durant, the director of the MIT Museum. The first of these, by seismologist Robert van der Hilst, explained the difficulty, indeed impossibility, of predicting earthquakes in the short term, and set the events preceding the L’Aquila earthquake into their scientific context. He was followed by Professor Larry Susskind, who explained the ways in which scientist must balance the probabilities of natural disaster with the impact and consequences. Maddalena D’Alfonso then explained in detail the specifics of the legal decision and why Marco Billi, the Italian judge responsible for the inquiry had arrived at his sentencing.

It was a thought-provoking evening for all involved – the issues are complex and emotions run justifiably high. In conversation with John Durant and Larry Susskind after the event, we talked about how, even now, more than four years after the earthquake, there is no publicly visible emergency plan for L’Aquila. It is astonishing to realize that even though the L’Aquila area is still the highest risk zone in the whole of Italy almost nobody knows what they should do in the event of another quake. Just writing this down for you now makes me realise how important it is for people to be properly informed about risk and about what to do in the event of emergency. Perhaps this should be one of the priorities for the project.

MIT have published video of the evening here: http://video.mit.edu/watch/talkback-360-science-on-trial-14007/

The following evening’s discussion, chaired by John Ochsendorf and Gary van Zante, took place in the Bush room on the main MIT campus, and was focussed on the state of the city in the aftermath of the earthquake. […]

The evening began with a video message from Paolo Aielli, who currently heads the office charged with dealing with reconstruction in L’Aquila. […]

Maddalena D’Alfonso and Michele Nastasi then talked about Michele’s photographs of shored up buildings in the centre of L’Aquila and about the painful absence of people in the city.

My presentation, whilst necessarily short, was focussed on the work that we have done over the last couple of years bringing together local volunteers with a community of modelers around the world to build a 3D representation of L’Aquila visible on Google Earth. It was great to have the opportunity to show recent images of buildings in the city center and important, for me, to emphasize the lack of progress in reconstruction and how what was a wonderful place to live has been left to gradually decay.

Perhaps the biggest underlying problem is how people in the city have been excluded from the most important decisions, hopefully L’Aquila 3D shows one simple way to engage local people in the reconstruction process.

The evening was wrapped up with what was, for me at least, a deeply frustrating and troubling presentation by Alessandra Mancinelli on behalf of Luciano Marchetti, former vice-commissioner for the reconstruction. I had met Marchetti previously at a presentation in London and had found him to be an intelligent and thoughtful engineer with a deep knowledge of the techniques of structural consolidation, particularly in relation to historic buildings.

In the presentation at MIT, however, and even in the question and answer session that followed, Marchetti, and his associates, seemed unwilling to engage in the broader questions about what should happen in L’Aquila to resolve the current lack of any progress.

The question and answer session, raised a number of thought-provoking points about the stalled reconstruction, and about the economic and social issues surrounding it. It was fascinating to discuss the L’Aquila 3D project with the MIT audience and to continue the discussion on in the exhibition of Michele Nastasi’s photographs.

Both John Ochsendorf and Gary van Zante seemed keen on Lucia’s suggestion of getting MIT to L’Aquila in the future. We are following this up with the University of L’Aquila where there seems to be genuine interest in fostering the relationship with MIT.

Talking about the L’Aquila 3D project to the Italian community was, of course, the primary motive for our being in Boston and it gave me the opportunity to explain the project in greater detail, and to give the audience the chance to see in some detail how things are in L’Aquila.

[…] I hope that I left everyone with a better idea of how things are in L’Aquila and possibly inspired some of them to help us out.

From my point of view it was great to have met so many positively-minded people in Boston.

[…] People in L’Aquila were proud to have the problems of their city discussed at MIT and it is of great support to know that the Italian community is actively interested. There was a certain amount of press interest in Italy in the three Boston evenings and even Luciano Marchetti left promising to provide material from his archives to the L’Aquila 3D projects.

In a way this underlines why it was so important for us to come to Boston and why it is important to keep in contact.

The problems in L’Aquila are immense and certainly beyond the means of the individual citizens, however working with the support and collaboration of enthusiastic experts and volunteers such as we were lucky to meet in Boston, I am confident that we can really make a difference. […]

So, cara Rosetta, thank you so much for your tenacity in getting us to the States and please pass on our gratitude to everyone who made our stay such a positive experience. […]

All the best.

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