Reportage. In Italy, there is no law on handling emergencies: there is no pre-established plan, and the approach is decided in the moment every time. From the post-war period to 2018, Italy spent €310 billion on hundreds of disasters.

The emergency of 149 emergencies

It’s the same story every time. A catastrophe happens and, after the immediate show of great solidarity typical of the moments following a tragedy, the moment always arrives when one doesn’t know what to do anymore. Or rather, we know how to start, but we don’t know when or if we will ever finish: we appoint a “commissioner for the emergency,” we give them more or less extraordinary powers, laws and decrees begin to come out of Parliament and then become converted into ordinances, directives, implementation notes. This happens with every earthquake, every flood, every landslide, every misfortune that changes the history and geography of our country.

At least since the L’Aquila earthquake (2009), at a certain point in the debate—while the operations for the return to normality are proceeding, as they almost always do, at a slow pace—among the committees, experts and sometimes local mayors one can see the emerging need to be able to count on certain common rules for all.

But this is impossible.

In Italy, there is no law on handling emergencies: there is no pre-established plan, and the approach is decided in the moment every time. A more or less realistic model is set up, and then one begins to calculate the amount of money the state will have to pay.

As one browses through the report “Natural disaster in Italy: evolution and economic impact” compiled by Prometeia, with estimates from the Association of Engineering and Technical-Economic Consulting Organizations, from the post-war period to 2018, 149 calamitous events have occurred in the country, which led to total spending of €310 billion.

There are currently 10 states of emergency still in effect for earthquakes, 12 for environmental, health or technological disasters, and as many as 122 for adverse weather events.

Each of these emergencies has its own commissioner (sometimes a minister or regional president, more often a figure appointed by the government) and its own budget figures. And it goes on for years, following a well-established pattern: after the lavish attention during the phases immediately following the tragedy, slowly but surely, the spotlights begin to turn off and the territories affected by the disaster sink into media darkness and into the abyss of administrative perversion.

To give an example: for the earthquakes that devastated central Italy between 2016 and 2017, only after the appointment of the fourth extraordinary commissioner (Giovanni Legnini, from January 2020) did the bureaucratic machinery begin to make sense, as everyone freely admits.

First and foremost, the most effective snapshot of the situation was given to reporters by Norcia mayor Nicola Alemanno in the winter of 2019, when he took a photo of himself next to the pile of laws and ordinances issued since the beginning of the earthquake emergency: a tower of papers almost a meter high.

Bureaucracy is politics: if we retrace the history of the L’Aquila earthquake and then the Apennine earthquake, it’s easy to understand the evolution of the way in which the emergency was dealt with.

While in Abruzzo the power was all concentrated in the hands of a single person (the then-head of civil protection, Guido Bertolaso), in 2016 the power was divided into so many parts that to this day it is impossible to understand precisely who should do what. It was a way of avoiding too much trouble and preventing debates from ending up fodder for investigations and courts, to be sure, but at the same time, it has led to paralysis on the reconstruction front.

Riccardo Bucci, lawyer for Alter Ego – Fabbrica dei diritti, argues that everything could be resolved with a single law on emergencies. “It is the best way to ensure the functioning of democratic powers,” he says. “We would need a law that would establish in advance, in a general manner and depending on the type of emergency, what tools the state can use to address critical issues and what tools it can provide to assist the affected population.”

CGIL has taken a formal step towards this direction. This summer saw the first proposal for a law to reduce the impact of natural disasters, putting in place prevention and safeguard actions.

“The fact that there are no national guidelines has led to the issuing of new rules for each calamitous event, proceeding by decree and starting all over again each time,” explains Laura Mariani, the CGIL official responsible for policies for reconstruction, earthquake prevention and natural disasters. “Instead, we could and should draw on previous experiences, errors and many positive outcomes for a uniform legislation that would treat all citizens in the same way.”

Hence the bill: entitled “Proposals for a framework law for the reduction of the impact of the natural calamities, the quality of the reconstruction processes and safeguarding from risks.”

The ideas exist, the proposals do too. Now we are waiting for someone willing to fight this battle where it could actually be won: in Parliament.

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