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12 years after: Learning from the L'Aquila disaster (Abruzzo, Italy)

Date:06 April 2021
Author:Angelo J. Imperiale
Picture taken by the author in July 2020
Picture taken by the author in July 2020

Twelve years ago, at 3.32 a.m. on April 6, 2009, L'Aquila, the capital city of the Abruzzo region in central Italy, and its surrounding area were devastated by an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Moment Magnitude Scale (5.9 on the Richter Scale), killing 309 people, injuring some 1600, and displacing more than 70,000 people. In addition to destroying the historic city centre of L'Aquila, the historic centres of more than 80 villages (across 57 municipalities) were also destroyed (Imperiale and Vanclay, 2016a). Although around €22 billion was spent on post-disaster interventions, twelve years after the earthquake, over 10,000 people still live in temporary accommodation. Access to large parts of the historic city centers of L’Aquila and of the mountain villages around is still limited by red zones, and the reconstruction process is still experiencing serious delays, causing many areas to be abandoned and overgrown. After 12 years, what can be learned from the L’Aquila disaster? What needs to be changed in traditional disaster management and development practice to reduce the risk of disasters and avoid the creation of second disasters?

Building community resilience

Broadly speaking, to enhance Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Sustainable Development, and to effectively implement the Sendai Framework worldwide, building resilience at the local community level (i.e. community resilience) and across multiple scales of social-ecological governance (i.e. social resilience) is crucial (IDNDR, 1994; UNISDR, 2005, 2015). Unfortunately, crises and disasters can be windows of opportunity for rent-seeking, elite capture, organized crime infiltration, disaster capitalism and corruption to emerge and take hold. However, as we learned from the L’Aquila post-disaster situation, in times of crises and disasters, extraordinary examples of community resilience emerge too, thus showing how vulnerable communities are also capable to learn from past failures, crises and disasters and positively transform towards addressing the negative risks and impacts, and enhance community wellbeing (Imperiale and Vanclay, 2016a). 

Social Impact Assessment (SIA) is the philosophy and process that can help all planned interventions, since before their conception, to strengthen community resilience and build pathways towards DRR and sustainable development (Imperiale and Vanclay, 2016b). However, although being recommended by international declarations, policies and guidelines (Benson and Twigg, 2007; Jah et al, 2010; UNISDR, 2015), states do not use SIA yet, but enact, conversely, a mechanism that both before and after disasters facilitates disaster capitalism rather than build resilience. 

Before disasters

Corrupted local governance, poor planning and derogations, outdated building codes and vulnerability of the built environment can be considered some of the social pre-conditions and root causes of disasters. Conversely, the capacities of local people to learn from vulnerabilities and risks, transform and reduce (or demand to reduce) these social pre-conditions and enhance (or demand to enhance) community capacities, services and support to local people's health and wellbeing, can prevent disaster risk in localities. Too often, a mere techno-scientific knowledge still limits the understanding of the social dimensions of risks and disasters, and of how vulnerability, social risks, the root causes, capacity and resilience influence risk. Furthermore, disaster myths and misconceptions still limit recognition of the positive feelings, attitudes, actions and behaviors of affected local communities that can lead to disaster risk reduction in localities. Disaster risk assessment is usually provided in the form of techno-scientific advice to civil protection authorities rather than be a transdisciplinary, co-produced, and transformative knowledge. Too little is done to effectively understand the social dimensions of risk, reduce local vulnerabilities and the root causes of disasters, and enhance local capacities for Disaster Risk Reduction, prevention and preparedness in localities before disasters occur (Imperiale and Vanclay, 2019a).

After disasters

Use of emergency powers, command-and-control and derogations (institutional strategy), no-bid contracts and direct assignment (financial strategy), and top-down planning with no consideration of the capacities and resilience of affected communities and of the environmental, social and human rights risks and impacts that may arise from post-disaster interventions (physical planning and risk management strategies), lead states to:

  1. violating United Nations disaster management principles (Imperiale and Vanclay, 2019b);
  2. perpetuating business as usual, and facilitating rent-seeking, élite capture, organized crime infiltration, disaster capitalism and corruption, thus creating further public debt and second disasters (Imperiale and Vanclay, 2020a; 2020b).

These institutional, financial, risk management and physical planning strategies constitute the mechanism used by states before and after disasters that facilitates disaster capitalism rather than build resilience or enhance DRR and sustainability. This mechanism creates barriers in all four priority areas identified by the United Nations to effectively implement the Sendai Framework (UNISDR, 2015):

  1. Rather than “understand risk in all its multiple dimensions (priority area 1)” this mechanism leads to denying the multiple dimensions of risks and impacts, including the social dimensions.
  2. Rather than “strengthen governance for DRR (priority area 2)”, this mechanism leads to exacerbating social exclusion.
  3. Rather than “enhance investments for resilience (priority area 3)”, this mechanism leads to exacerbating public debt and inequity.
  4. Rather than “build back better (priority area 4)”, this mechanism leads to creating second disasters. 

Switch from centralized social protection to socially-sustainable community empowerment systems

While in Imperiale and Vanclay (2020c) we provide a detailed explanation of the barriers to DRR and sustainable development in each of the Four Priority Areas, in Imperiale and Vanclay (2021) we provide a reflection on how to overcome these barriers, build resilience and enhance DRR and sustainable development in vulnerable regions. Overall, to overcome the barriers to DRR and sustainable development, a switch from centralized civil protection systems to decentralized, socially-sustainable community empowerment systems is needed. This shift should lead to avoiding the mechanism of disaster capitalism, and it should be accompanied by a switch in the culture and governance accompanying and orienting the conception, decision, design and implementation of planned interventions before and after disasters. At the cultural level, a switch from a top-down paternalistic culture of social protection to a glocal culture of community wellbeing and resilience is needed to better appreciate local community needs, capacities and resilience and the social dimensions of risk. At the governance level, a switch from a command-and-control approach, to a socially-sustainable risk governance is crucial to ensure sharing of knowledge, technologies, resources and responsibilities for risk reduction and development with a broader constituency of local communities  in order to build community resilience, enhance DRR, sustainable development and community wellbeing and capacities in localities.


References

Benson, C. Twigg, J. and Rossetto, T. 2007. Tools for mainstreaming disaster risk reduction: guidance notes for development organisations. ProVention Consortium https://www.preventionweb.net/publications/view/1066

IDNDR, 1994. Yokohama Strategy and Plan of Action for a Safer World: Guidelines for Natural Disaster Prevention, Preparedness and Mitigation. [accessed 11 Feb 2020] http://www.ifrc.org/Docs/idrl/I248EN.pdf

Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2016a. Experiencing local community resilience in action: Learning from post- disaster communities. Journal of Rural Studies 47, 204-219. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2016.08.002

Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2016b. Using Social Impact Assessment to strengthen community resilience in sustainable rural development in mountain areas, Mountain Research and Development 36(4), 431-442. https://doi.org/10.1659/MRD-JOURNAL-D-16-00027.1

Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2019a. Reflections on the L’Aquila trial and the social dimensions of Disaster Risk, Disaster Prevention and Management 28(4), 434-445. https://doi.org/10.1108/DPM-01-2018-0030

Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2019b. Command-and-control, emergency powers, and the failure to observe United Nations disaster management principles following the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 36, 101099 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2019.101099

Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2020a. The mechanism of Disaster Capitalism and failure to build community resilience in post-disaster regions: lessons learned from the L’Aquila earthquake. Disasters: https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12431

Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2020b. Top-down reconstruction and the failure to ‘build back better’ resilient communities after disaster: Lessons from the 2009 L’Aquila Italy earthquake. Disaster Prevention and Management, 29(4):541-555. https://doi.org/10.1108/DPM-11-2019-0336

Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2020c. Barriers to enhancing Disaster Risk Reduction and Community Resilience: Evidence from the L’Aquila disaster, Politics and Governance, 8(4):232-243 https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i4.3179

Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2021. Conceptualizing community resilience and the social dimensions of risk to overcome barriers to disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, Sustainable Development, https://doi.org/10.1002/sd.2182

Jha, A.K., Barenstein, J., Duyne, P., Priscilla, M., Pittet, D., Sena, S. 2010. Safer Homes, Stronger Communities: A Handbook for Reconstructing after Natural Disasters. Washington DC, World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/2409

UNISDR. 2015. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Paris: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction http://www.preventionweb.net/files/43291_sendaiframeworkfordrren.pdf

UNISDR. 2005. Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. http://www.unisdr.org/2005/wcdr/intergover/official-doc/L-docs/Hyogo-framework-for-action-english.pdf

About the author

Angelo J. Imperiale
Angelo J. Imperiale
Angelo Jonas Imperiale has a PhD in Spatial Sciences from the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. He has a Master of Philosophy (cum laude) from the University of L’Aquila, Italy, with a specialization in  complex systems theory and social sciences. He wrote a PhD thesis in Rural Sociology and Disaster Risk Reduction titled "The role of local communities in a global risk landscape". The thesis defines what is Community Resilience and explores the role of Social Impact Assessment to enhance it in vulnerable regions and post-disaster situations. His expertise is in the fields of Social Impact Assessment, community resilience, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development in vulnerable regions.

Recent publications
Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2021. Conceptualizing community resilience and the social dimensions of risk to overcome barriers to disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, Sustainable Development, https://doi.org/10.1002/sd.2182

Other media interviews
The Guardian:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/07/george-clooney-laquila-italy-earthquake-restoration
UG website:
https://www.rug.nl/news/2019/04/disaster-management-principles-widely-ignored-after-the-l_aquila-earthquake-2009?lang=en
Lavoro Culturale:
https://www.lavoroculturale.org/il-capitalismo-dei-disastri-allaquila/giuseppe-forino-e-angelo-imperiale/

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