Italy muzzled scientist who predicted quake

ROME Mon Apr 6, 2009 11:09am EDT

ROME (Reuters) - An Italian scientist predicted a major earthquake around L'Aquila weeks before disaster struck the city on Monday, killing more than 90 people, but was reported to authorities for spreading panic.

The government on Monday insisted the warning, by seismologist Giacchino Giuliani, had no scientific foundation.

The first tremors in the region were felt in mid-January and continued at regular intervals, creating mounting alarm in the medieval city, about 100 km (60 miles) east of Rome.

Vans with loudspeakers drove around the town a month ago telling locals to evacuate their houses after Giuliani, from the National Institute of Astrophysics, predicted a large quake was on the way, prompting the mayor's anger.

Giuliani, who based his forecast on concentrations of radon gas around seismically active areas, was reported to police for "spreading alarm" and was forced to remove his findings from the Internet.

As media asked questions about the whether the government properly safeguarded the population in light of his warning, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appeared on the defensive at a news conference.

He said now was the time to concentrate on relief efforts and "we can discuss afterwards about the predictability of earthquakes."

Italy's Civil Protection agency held a meeting of the Major Risks Committee, grouping scientists charged with assessing such risks, in L'Aquila on March 31 to reassure the townspeople.

"The tremors being felt by the population are part of a typical sequence ... (which is) absolutely normal in a seismic area like the one around L'Aquila," the civil protection agency said in a statement on the eve of that meeting.

It added that the agency saw no reason for alarm but was nonetheless effecting "continuous monitoring and attention."

The head of the agency, Guido Bertolaso, referred back to that meeting at Monday's joint news conference with Berlusconi.

The Major Risks Committee concluded there was no reason to forecast a more powerful earthquake than the previous tremors, he said. "There is no possibility of predicting an earthquake, that is the view of the international scientific community."

Enzo Boschi, the head of the National Geophysics Institute, said the real problem for Italy was a long-standing failure to take proper precautions despite a history of tragic quakes.

"We have earthquakes but then we forget and do nothing. It's not in our culture to take precautions or build in an appropriate way in areas where there could be strong earthquakes," he said.

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