Earthquakes: Where the earth has moved, it will move again

earthquakeA few days into April newspapers and TV screens offered us fearful images of the Aquila earthquake, not all that far away in Italy. So could it happen here? Yes, reply the seismologists, but they don’t know when.

The basic fact is that this area lies on a fault line running from North Africa under the Mediterranean into Italy. That’s why earth tremors are relatively common although many of them are too weak to be noticed by those at home. Local expert Edmond Mari, seismologist and mayor of Châteauneuf-Villevieille, finds the regular occurrence of these secousses telluriques quite comforting: “In layman’s language, they relieve the pressure on the earth’s surface and so make a megaquake less likely. But it’ll come: where the earth has moved it will move again. The history’s there to prove it. The last spectacular earthquake was in 1887. The Italians got the worst of it – 600 dead, I think it was – but on our side there was a lot of damage though far fewer casualties.”

Recently a European study group produced a report indicating what an Aquila-style quake would do to Nice: some 200 dead (300 perished in Aquila), 23,000 homeless and material damage costing some €4.5 billion to repair. How readied are we for this kind of disaster? Emergency services are well geared up and carry out regular simulation exercises while a significant effort has gone into public education (it’s a good idea to keep bottled water, a flashlight and a battery-powered radio easily accessible).

What about earthquake-proofing of buildings? One local official was frank: “With public buildings it’s nearly a hundred per cent new, with residential properties about one in five.”

Finally, how much warning would we get? “Not much,” admits Mari, “that’s why preparation is so important.” And here’s some advice from Japan: buy a cat. There they’ve noticed that felines seem remarkably sensitive to an imminent quake. So if you see a lot of moggies suddenly leaving town ... join them.