Earthquakes: State aware of the risks but indifferent

Professor Vassilis Papazachos blasts the State for failing to set up proper earthquake protection. In an interview with Kathimerini, he accuses the authorities of using the pretext of not wanting to harm tourism in order to avoid using existing scientific knowledge to limit damage from quakes. He cites Indonesia, where experts expected a major earthquake and a tsunami but tourism itself was sacrificed on the altar of tourism and 200,000 people were killed, and reveals that hoteliers have threatened him with legal action on account of his research. Predictable Papazachos claims that there is sufficient knowledge about earthquakes for seismologists to know within five years where quakes will occur and their approximate force, and that it is up to the State to make every effort «if it has the will.» What should happen? «There are two sides to anti-seismic protection,» he says. «One concerns anti-seismic regulations, which are very good; but the other concerns what will be built in the future, the 10 percent of housing stock that is new.» What will happen to the remaining 90 percent of houses that were not built according to those regulations, some even without the oversight of an engineer? «The other side, which is the big issue, concerns pre-seismic inspections of buildings and readiness measures for a possible earthquake.» Asked how it is possible to inspect all those buildings, given that virtually all of Greece is prone to seismic activity, Papazachos elucidates: «Pre-seismic inspections of buildings, especially public buildings such as schools and hospitals and in general those frequented by many people, as well as other measures, must focus on those areas we specialists know to be at greater risk. Priorities must be set. Unfortunately, there is no such program.» He also refers to a lack of political will on the part of the State to make use of existing scientific knowledge. «Seismologists, scientists in general, produce knowledge. They can’t be forever pressing the State to utilize it. We have the knowledge, but if the State isn’t interested, what can we do? I’ll give you an example of the prevailing mentality. When I told a minister in the previous government who was involved in anti-seismic policy that we know with considerable accuracy where the next major earthquakes may occur in Greece in the medium term, he retorted: ‘That’s a hot potato; don’t hand it to me. You keep it. Publish the results in a scientific journal, do what you like, but I don’t want to know about it.’ But we won’t get anywhere with that kind of mentality.» «Only California and Japan, countries with intense seismic activity, have taken action,» says Papazachos. «Greece is the country with the highest level of seismic activity in Eurasia. Don’t we have to start somewhere? Don’t we need vision? The main argument is that we’ll harm tourism. We got into strife with hotel owners. Some of them have threatened me over our research into earthquakes, even though I have never stated publicly which areas are most at risk. «Tourism is not in danger from knowledge about earthquakes but from the phenomenon itself. Look at what happened in Indonesia where they had scientific knowledge; they knew there would be a major earthquake and that there was a very strong probability a tsunami would follow. Leading American seismologists Ruddle and Turcott had predicted an earthquake within a decade, yet no protective measures were taken; no tsunami warning system was set up, supposedly so as not to harm tourism. What happened? The earthquake happened, it killed tourism itself, and above all, about 200,000 people. Papazachos concludes that «the State must realize that the danger of earthquakes is one of the most serious problems facing Greece, and implement anti-seismic policies. «It has to take the big step now, because if it doesn’t happen now it will never happen. If the proper measures are taken, we will reduce the number of deaths from earthquakes almost to nil.»