Questions over building standards as aftershocks continue

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The death toll in Italy's worst earthquake for 30 years jumped to 235 last night, with exhausted rescue workers battling the precarious mountains of rubble and a series of jarring aftershocks including one that brought further destruction to the medieval centre of L'Aquila.

Further panic spread across Italy last night after the force of one aftershock, which measured 5.5-magnitude on the Richter Scale, brought masonry from already damaged buildings tumbling to the ground. Its tremors were felt as far away as Rome.

As officials reported that 17,000 were now homeless after up to 15,000 buildings had been damaged, Italy was plunged into anguished debate about why it seems so vulnerable to these natural disasters. Many of the buildings in L'Aquila are centuries old, yet as the town's mayor himself pointed out in the early hours of Monday morning, "the new houses fell down, too". One of those was the city's San Salvatore hospital. It was hailed at its opening in 2000 as a state-of-art, earthquake-proof building, but its wall gave way during the tremors and doctors were forced to evacuate and treat patients outside.

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

Franco Barbieri, a leading geologist and disaster expert, commented: "What makes one angry is that, if this happened in California or Japan or some other country where for some time they have been practising anti-seismic protection, [this] would not have caused a single death."

The problem is not the absence of laws, of which Italy has a profusion: four different ones spell out the standards required of new buildings, the latest one brought into force on an emergency basis only last year.

The problem is many newer parts of Italian cities fall outside those provisions because they were built in the 1950s and 1960s when the concrete was far inferior and legal standards were much lower. Paolo Stefanelli, head of the Society of Engineers, explained: "All buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s are at risk of damage by earthquake from between five and 30 years from the date of construction because of the type of reinforced concrete employed in those years. We've said this many times, but nobody paid any notice."

Other experts say comparisons with California or Japan are unwise, given that Italy has a vast number of ancient, historic buildings. "The biggest reason for the loss of life in this earthquake was not the lack of diligence of the professionals but the fact that 60 per cent of the houses are more than 200 years old," said Dante Benini, a leading architect based in Milan and London.

"Here in Italy, history is our only patrimony, we don't have oil or other resources, this is our real wealth. But with regard to new houses, they must be built according to the seismic standards. Our problem is that we have good laws but unfortunately bad builders. My profession needs to be moralised. New structures should be built not only in conformity with the law but better than that."

So why doesn't it happen? "There is a huge difference between the standard of architects working in the big cities and those in the provinces, in cities like L'Aquila, where the people designing the buildings are often not even architects, they are just surveyors with no more than a diploma," Mr Benini said.

Yesterday, after a tour of the devastated streets of L'Aquila, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, promised that his government would rebuild a new, quake-proof town within two years. "We could not have had a magic wand [before the quake] to turn all the old buildings into anti-seismic ones," he said, but he vowed that all new structures would be built to the highest of modern standards.