The earthquake in Irpinia forty years ago

Between 19.35 and 19.37 on November 23, forty years ago three earthquakes with a maximum magnitude of 6.9 occurred in rapid succession in Irpinia, geographical area of Southern Italy between the provinces of Salerno, Avellino and Potenza. According to official estimates, they caused 2,914 deaths and damaged 362,000 buildings in 687 municipalities, including Benevento, Matera, Naples, Potenza, Salerno and Foggia. It was among the most disastrous earthquakes ever to occur in Italy: it hit a rural area already considered among the poorest in the country, with isolated and poorly connected towns, some of which were almost completely razed to the ground. The evacuees were over three hundred thousand.

The epicenter of the three major shocks – each stronger than the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake – was identified among the Campania municipalities of Teora, Castelnuovo di Conza and Conza della Campania, all on the border with Basilicata. In those places on the evening of November 23, 1980, at a depth of fifteen kilometers, three distinct ruptures occurred in succession which reached the earth’s crust, causing a gash still visible 35 kilometers long. The effects of the event were felt in almost the entire peninsula, but the greatest damage is concentrated between Campania and Basilicata, where the tremors continued the following day.

Despite the magnitude of the earthquake, the event was underestimated for hours. The first national news reported only “a slight shock” and “some injured”. At the time, the seismographs were not yet connected in a single data collection center and there were no national structures to manage emergencies of this magnitude: the Civil Protection was just at the beginning of a ten-year legislative process that was stimulated by the earthquake in Irpinia, and the criticism for the slowness addressed by the then President of the Republic, Sandro Pertini.

Two days after the three main shocks, it was in fact Pertini’s visit to give a first real picture of the situation. After being there, Pertini gave a speech on live television in which he said: «I returned last night from the areas devastated by the earthquake. I have witnessed some shows that I will never forget: entire towns razed to the ground, the desperation of the survivors. I arrived in those countries immediately after the news that reached me in Rome. Well, 48 hours later, the necessary aid had not yet arrived in those countries ».

The extent of the earthquake combined with the characteristics of the affected areas and the poor reactivity of the emergency protocols created a jam of delays that lasted for days. The situation was also worsened by damage to institutional buildings and a series of collateral events, such as the riots that broke out in the Neapolitan prisons of Pozzuoli and Poggioreale, among the most crowded in Italy.
The accommodation of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people was then complicated by the particularly harsh winter in those places, so there was an immediate need for thousands of wagons, containers and prefabricated buildings, some of which are still inhabited. The reconstruction of the destroyed or damaged places was in fact just as slow and cannot be said to be truly completed even today, despite since then, according to updated estimates, the equivalent of over 60 billion euros have been spent.

– Read also: The forgotten disaster of Balvano

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