How come every couple of years Italy experiences a terrible earthquake where tens, and sometimes even hundreds, of people die?

Between the provinces of Rieti and Ascoli Piceno the ground is still periodically shaking as I write this - aftershocks from the most recent of these episodes.

This one has played out as they usually do: Nearly 300 people are dead, and hopes of finding anyone left alive have faded.


"In difficult moments, Italy knows what to do," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on the day the quake struck, and he was right.

In the following days, aid operations swung into action, rescue teams were sent out as quickly as possible, food and tents were made available, blood transfusions were provided. Immediately post-disaster, Italy is virtually impeccable. But maybe Italy knows what to do in these difficult moments because it has had entirely too much practice.

Italy is a sort of hub for fault lines. The country is being pushed northward by the African tectonic plate toward the Balkans, with visible effect: In addition to the earthquakes, there's the shrinkage of the Adriatic Sea by roughly 2 millimeters a year. One very active major fault line runs under the Apennine mountain range, which cuts through the north of the country, from Liguria to Umbria. Another slightly less active fault runs under the Alps, a much older mountain range, though earthquakes do happen there too, like the tragic one in the Friuli region in 1976 that killed almost 1000 and left more than 150,000 homeless.

So, yes, Italy is notoriously seismic - and yet there are many other notoriously seismic countries in the world where a 6.0 earthquake wouldn't lead to hundreds of deaths. We should be generous and note that the impact of the quake was made worse by its shallow epicentre; quakes that originate deeper within the earth have some of their shock blunted by the layers of ground above. But this is no excuse - in Japan, it's hard to imagine that an earthquake of this kind would have done anything more than break a couple of glasses falling from cabinets left ajar by mistake. Yet in the middle of Europe, one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced parts of the world, quakes that are only a little more than halfway up the Richter scale regularly result in apocalyptic scenarios.

The Italian system is not working. It is not working on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to begin.

It's true that Italy is an old country, and that this has something to do with the problem. Twenty-two million Italians out of a population of 60 million live in areas whose buildings were constructed before 1974. That was the year Italy introduced modern earthquake-resistant construction standards. All buildings from before that date have, by and large, remained unaltered, with the exception of public buildings like schools and hospitals. So there's some truth to the storyline that Italy's oldness and its attachment to its ancient architecture are responsible for the consistently staggering death tolls, or, as Renzi put it, "We're talking about medieval-era towns."

But that doesn't explain the collapse of a primary school in Amatrice - the town hit hardest by the recent quake - that was retrofitted in 2012 at a cost of US$783,000 to meet seismic safety standards. Nor does it explain the collapse of the town's hospital or the crumbling of a bell tower in nearby Accumoli, also supposedly rebuilt to meet modern standards.

For this, we need to turn to a pair of familiar friends: political ineptitude and corruption. Did someone cut corners on these vital reconstruction efforts? Did contractors or government inspectors overlook engineering requirements? We'll have to wait and see, but we should not flinch from trying to find out. Police are already guarding the remains of Amatrice Town Hall to ensure that no contract records are destroyed.

It's been less than a week since the quake and calls for public prosecutions have already begun. "This is poorly spent money, and someone will have to answer for it," Senator Mario Michele Giarrusso of Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Party demanded during an interview with the news portal on the collapse of the primary school. The public prosecutor in Rieti has already indicated that he plans to take action, saying the death toll "cannot only be considered the work of fate".

We'll learn in the next few months whether Italy keeps its post-disaster anger trained on the right targets - or if, as was the case in the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila that killed more than 300, it convicts scientists of manslaughter for failing to predict the quake.

Guido Bertolaso, the former head of Italy's Protezione Civile, the national body that deals with the prediction, prevention, and management of exceptional events, was heavily criticised for mismanaging the 2009 earthquake. In an op-ed in Il Tempo the day after the disaster, he wrote that anyone in need of a tent should still be able to receive one because "not all have been given to immigrants," a divisive and irrelevant aside that does not bode well for the Government's focus.

Giarrusso, for all his fiery demands for justice, does not sound optimistic. For those who reconstructed the school in 2012, for example, the statute of limitations may have already expired. "Hardly any of those responsible will pay . . . These crimes are low risk. People pack up and no one pays," he said.

How do we reconcile self-interest and the common good in modern-day Italy? A country with Italy's aspirations to become a player not just in Europe but on the world stage ought to know where to start. But so far, we're not getting it right.

- Foreign Policy