Thursday, 7 June 2012

Bologna, black swans and preparedness

A region near Bologna was recently struck by a series of earthquakes. The largest, on May 20, was magnitude 6.0.

While Italy, like many parts of the Mediterranean, does experience occasional tremors, they are most frequent in the southern part of the country. Nonetheless, two dozen people were killed in the recent series of quakes, all of them outside of Bologna to the north of the city.

Bart Drakulich
After the quakes, we at SAIS Bologna received numerous notes wishing us well and a few messages of concern. As someone who lived for three years in Tokyo, the most seismically active region in the world, I like to think I know a thing or two about quakes.

But I thought it would be useful to hear from Bart Drakulich, who as director of finance and administration is in charge of our facilities and knows much more than I do about our state of preparedness.

Q: The region near Bologna has recently been hit by some earthquakes. Is it safe to live in Bologna?
Drakulich: Yes. To answer that question you might steal a page from Prof. Jones’s course "Risk in International Political Economy" and talk about probability and bias, the differences between risk and uncertainty, the role of chance and randomness in our lives -- and perhaps even black swans.

Seismicity of the world (1900-2010)
from the
U.S. Geological Survey
From a statistical standpoint you are safer living in Bologna than you would be in most European or American capitals, not to mention other cities of comparable size around the world. For example, the murder rate in Bologna is very low compared to the location of other campuses like ours.

But if you want to isolate earthquakes as a source of danger, the answer to your question about whether Bologna is safe remains a resounding “yes”. Let’s look at some statistics.

There are four categories of earthquake risk. Category one is “high risk”, two is “medium risk”, three is “low risk” and four is “irrelevant”, or no record of earthquakes. Bologna is in a category-three seismic zone. In the last 800 years or so there have been 17 earthquakes in Bologna, and only one of these, in 1365, would have been over 6.0 magnitude.

The last earthquake that caused structural damage to homes was in 1929, and there were no injuries or fatalities. Tragically, the recent earthquakes in the Emilia-Romagna region did cause a number of fatalities. But none were in or near the city of Bologna. The epicenter of these earthquakes was  many miles north of us. The deaths themselves were heartbreaking, but they were almost exclusively caused by ancient churches crumbling or shoddily built factories and warehouse roofs collapsing on workers. The city of Bologna was barely touched, and the SAIS Bologna Center did not have a single crack.

Q: Could you tell what was done during the recent renovation of SAIS Bologna to make it quake-resistant?
Drakulich: Around 2005, just as we were in the final planning stages of the renovation and expansion of our facility in via Belmeloro, Italy tightened its earthquake construction standards. It required that all schools, hospitals, public emergency buildings, etc. with open construction permits bring their facilities up to the highest earthquake engineering standards. We engaged one of Bologna’s most prominent structural engineers and embarked on a major assessment of our building plans.
New wing rests on bedrock
Since our building was constructed in the 1960s, it was already one of the safest buildings in the medieval center of Bologna. But the engineer told us we could make structural improvements during the renovation, about a million euros worth, that would provide us state-of-the-art earthquake protection. While the unexpected costs meant we had to reassess our project budget, the thought of ignoring the engineer’s report never crossed our mind.

We ultimately followed every one of his recommendations, which included dismantling and rebuilding, brick by brick, the main auditorium wall on the east face of our building; reinforcing the central stairwell by doubling the thickness of the walls and building the foundations of the new west wing expansion on steel poles that were drilled so far into the ground that they rest on Bologna’s bedrock.

These reinforcements, along with other safety precautions quite visible throughout our facility, allow me to say with unwavering confidence that, should that black swan event of a major earthquake hit the city of Bologna, there is no place I would rather be than in our building. Hands down.

Q: What kind of safety measures do you generally advise that SAIS Bologna students take?
Drakulich: When it comes to the safety of our students, I’m much more concerned about the everyday dangers of life in the city than I am about natural disasters.

Reinforced auditorium wall
At the beginning of the year I give each class a presentation on security in Bologna, as well as slides with useful information and key contact numbers. After 12 years at the Center, I have a  good sense of what kinds of problems our students may encounter during their time here. These tend to be pick-pocketing, burglaries, traffic accidents and other typical urban incidents.

Awareness of your surroundings, getting to know the city and its different neighborhoods, learning some basic Italian so that you can ask for assistance -- these are keys to having an incident-free and productive (not to mention enjoyable) experience while in Bologna.

That said, that black swan may be waiting around the corner -- by definition, very far around the corner -- so my wish for our incoming students, when it comes to safety, is that you may dwell in the fatty center of the Gaussian distribution of life.

Nelson Graves