The Salem Witch Hunt has finally been topped.
An Italian court this week convicted seven men - primarily scientists - for failing to adequately warn the residents of L’Aquila of the earthquake risk they faced after a shaker in the early morning of April 6, 2009 left 308 people dead.
The judge ordered the defendants to six years in prison.
The case was pressed by lawyers representing families of the victims.
They blamed the seven members of the country’s National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks for downplaying the significance of a series of small tremors in the region in the weeks leading up to the major 6.3 magnitude quake.
The attorney for the families of the victims contended had the commission warned there was a strong chance of an earthquake people would have been better prepared.
Sure they would. They would have slept outdoors. They would have stayed out of any building that didn’t meet modern seismic standards. They would have removed items from high shelves. They would have prepared survival kits with a month’s supply of food and water as well as first aid and other items for their families. We know they would do that because Californians who have been warned a major quake is likely to strike the Golden State sometime over the next 30 years have done likewise.
Before you laugh this one off, the United States judicial system may not be far behind the Italians.
There have already been several cases in this country of the National Weather Service and private sector meteorologists being sued for inaccurate forecasts such as those involving tornados, hurricanes, excessive rain or catastrophic snowfall. So far, none of the defendants in such cases have been found liable, but give it time.
Earthquake predictability is an evolving science. Researchers have always stressed it is virtually impossible to accurately predict the chances of an major quake let alone exactly when and where it will hit.
The best proven accurate warning of pending quake was 9 seconds. That happened as a California Institute of Technology quake advance warning system was tested for the first time when a quake shook Yorba Linda in Southern California on Aug. 7 of this year.
If the verdict in Italy had happened here, the world’s best chance for predicting earthquakes being undertaken by Cal Tech would quickly become history.
The modern-day equivalent of burning witches at the stake wouldn’t exactly encourage research, at least not anything that would be shared with the general public that includes a subspecies of lawyers willing to sue a pediatrician for their role in bringing a future mass murderer into the world.
It can be - and should be - argued that the greatest threat to making the world safer whether it is from earthquakes or car accidents is the unbridled reign given to people to sue on the assumption blame for the actions of fate can always be assigned to someone else.
The scientists in Italy were working with the crudest of data. In a very high percentage - 980 out of 1,000 cases - seismic tremors don’t evolve into a major earthquake.
If every time tremor activity occurred people were warned about a major quake, it would have the same impact as the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf.
The short-term effect - at least in Italy - will probably see seismic scientists either greatly exaggerate risks or stay mum after suspicious seismic activity is recorded. Both responses would result in the same outcome of the March 31, 2009 pronouncement the commission made that “there was no danger” yet that it was important to “remain alert, without panicking.”
Regardless, it is a little disconcerting to realize that the only earthquake preparedness that some people ever intend to have is to carry the business card of a lawyer.
This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-249-3519.