Thursday, April 23, 2009
Italian Earthquake: The Gardens of L’Aquila
I joined the team led by Prof. Daniele Nardi (Universita’ di Roma La Sapienza) for a one day visit to L’Aquila, Italy, the cultural epicenter of the April 6 earthquake that killed 300 and displaced thousands of others.
It was a long day- I flew into Rome on an overnight flight, arriving Wed at 7:45AM to a quick change into my response gear, a warm welcome from Daniele and his colleagues, and a one and a half hour drive to the mountains. Daniele had gotten the local fire rescue department to give us a heartbreaking tour and permission to fly his group’s small Ascending Technologies Quadrotor on-site. I was along as an observer on this trip, so I didn’t bring any robots, just cameras and my field notebook.
As we drove east from Rome, the mountains were a carpet of spring green dotted with the purple blooms of the Judas trees and the outskirts of town a maze of gardens of tulips and wisteria in full bloom, ins sharp contrast to the maze of collapsed buildings just a few kilometers ahead.
L’Aquila is a historical town in the mountains, along a ridge in a valley, famous for saffron. Think of a 15th century New Orleans French Quarter, the Canal Business District, and the Garden District all along a ridge, providing a mixture of very old, very new, commercial, apartment buildings, and villas. The town has a large university with the flavor of Tulane.
Our first stop was the ruins of an apartment building where a 24 year old student was pulled out alive.
Our second stop was an apartment building where 24 people died.
And everywhere, toys, stuffed animals, legos, and baby blankets peeking out from the rubble causing my heart to clench in fear, “what about the children?”
The team flew four flights among the ancient villas and then a flight downtown along buildings tumbling into the narrow streets, notice the Italian flag in the background. The flight conditions were perfect, no wind and the rain clouds eliminated glare. While the team had no mission, the rubble served as natural targets for trying out camera configurations and flying strategies. The environment offered many examples the close quarters of the types of clutter that make flying in urban areas so challenging: trees, flags, telephone lines, etc.
The displaced will remain so for a long time. The aftershocks are expected to persist through August and it is difficult to assess the structural condition of the buildings and even more difficult to remove or repair structures. We passed two large tent cities on the outskirts of town.
As with hurricanes in the US, the recovery from earthquakes may be harder than the response. To me, it cries out for embedded sensors and smart structures to measure the impact- either before or inserted after a quake in anticipation of aftershocks. It also suggests that we need to explore ways to develop new sensors and use humans and unmanned systems better to more quickly inspect buildings, perhaps using the internet to send data to experts all through out the country rather than having 1 or 2 inspectors or claims adjusters act as a bottleneck. And I wonder how much information is known to the population but unharnessed because we still lag in exploiting connectivity and the “wisdom of the crowd” showing up in twitter, flickr, and other social software?
There’s work to be done…