Amatrice The Earthquake Risk in Italy

After the destructive earthquake that leveled Amatrice and the surrounding area this week, we’ve been asked many times if the quake was near our property. Well, it depends on what you’d call “near.”

Relation of our house near Colmurano and site of earthquake near Amatrice
Amatrice (pin) and Colmurano (star)
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Amatrice (indicated by the pin) is about 100 km south and a little west of Colmurano (indicated by the star), but the quake was felt throughout Marche. Kevin said his house, near San Ginesio, “rocked several times during that night,” but sustained no damage. (It was built about 10 years ago, following the current building regulations designed to reduce earthquake damage.) He also said that 150 houses in the province of Macerata had already been condemned due to the damage.

Since our property has nothing but a ruin on it right now, I’m assuming we had no damage that will affect us. But since the local authorities are now occupied with property inspections and safety evaluations, we’ll probably be facing some delay in getting our approval to build. (The design itself should be fine, as it was made to meet the latest earthquake safety requirements.)

Having well-constructed buildings is important. As I read, “Earthquakes don’t kill people. Falling buildings kill people.” And tsunamis.

But will we be experiencing future quakes that might affect us? What sort of probabilities are we talking about?

The Fault in Our Ground
Earth plates affecting Italy
European and African plates
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map of earthquake risk in italy
Earthquake danger in Italy
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Map of fault in Marche and historical earthquakes
Historical earthquakes in Marche
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A major fault line between the large Eurasian plate and the small Adriatic plate runs down the center of Italy through the Appenini mountain range. There’s also pressure from the large Africa plate in the area. This yields over 1000 earthquakes a year in Italy of various magnitudes, all but a handful small.

Looking at Italy as a whole, the highest risk for dangerous quakes follows that fault. This map shows the area in the mountains near Amatrice in the very dark red, indicating high danger. Our area of Marche is less risky, being in the lightest pink color, but still about the middle for risk.

This closeup map is very interesting, but lacking some key information. It shows a past quake near Macerata big enough to include but of some magnitude less than 5.5, but it doesn’t say when. Also, it estimates the annual risk for an event in our area as about 0.20%, but doesn’t say how big the event needs to be to “count.” That translates to a quake of some significant size (>5.0??) every 500 years.

Or it translates to a probability of 5% in the next 25 years. Compare that to this estimate from the US Geological Survey (USGS): “They concluded that there is a 72 percent probability (or likelihood) of at least one earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater striking somewhere in the San Francisco Bay region before 2043.”


I wanted a refresher on both how the scale works and how to translate a magnitude into some meaningful terms.

I was surprised to learn that the USGS hasn’t used the Richter scale since the 1970s. They now use the “moment magnitude scale.” (MMS) It is similar to the Richter scale, both in calculation and in damage assessments.

equationMMS is measured not on a linear scale but a logarithmic one. In practical terms, this means the differences between the intensity of quakes of similar numbers is a lot more than it seems. For example, a 6.0 quake has 32 times the intensity (energy released) of a 5.0, while a 7.0 has 1000 times the intensity of that 5.0.

Interestingly, the amount of time an earthquake lasts gives a good estimate of its intensity. The quake that struck San Francisco during the 1989 World Series lasted about 15 seconds and measured 6.9. The huge earthquake in Japan in 2011 lasted 4 minutes and was a 9.0. (The highest recorded MMS was in 1960 in Chile: 9.5) Anything over a minute or so is going to be real bad.

The intensity is also linked to the length of the fault line that is displaced. It’s thought that the maximum for a San Andreas quake is about 8.2. That’s big, but small compared to the potential of the Cascadia subduction zone near Seattle: 9.2.

The Amatrice earthquake was measured at 6.2. Here’s a sense of what happens in a 6.0-6.9 quake. It matches this quake fairly well: “Damage to a moderate number of well-built structures in populated areas. Earthquake-resistant structures survive with slight to moderate damage. Poorly designed structures receive moderate to severe damage. Felt in wider areas; up to hundreds of miles/kilometers from the epicenter. Strong to violent shaking in epicentral area.”

Small earthquakes happen all the time. Fortunately. the big ones are rare.

earthquake energy chart
Earthquake energy and magnitude
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First image: Google Maps
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An Experiment: Frasassi

To fill in between posts about the house, I thought I’d try an exercise. Write about places to see in Le Marche, with rules being I can only do research using Italian-language articles, and I’m going to look up as few words as possible.

Le Grotte di Frasassi

Le Grotte di Frasassi, or the Caves of Frasassi, seem to be a good place to start. In north-central Marche, about 66km (40 miles) northwest of Colmurano and about an hour and a half by car, these are some big caves. The Italians like to point out that the cave just inside the present entrance could comfortably contain the Duomo of Milan, the third largest Catholic Church in the world, behind St. Peter in the Vatican and the cathedral in Siviglia, Spain. (We’re talking about a space about 400 X 600 feet and 650 feet high. In the vernacular, that’s about 4×2 football fields and really high: let’s say half the Empire State Building.)

Frasassi CavesThe caves weren’t discovered until 1971, when some spelunkers from a Marche caving club felt a strong breeze coming from a small hole in the ground. They had to enlarge the opening to get in, where they saw … a very small room, but with some small gaps where the wind was whistling through. After some days of digging, they finally were in a place they could stand and they saw … darkness. But big darkness. They dropped some stones off an edge they (fortunately) did see and estimated the fall at 100m (330ft). Watch your step! They called this cave “La Grotta Grande del Vento,” the Big Cave of the Wind.

The process that formed the caves started about 190 million years ago. So far, they’ve discovered over 40km (25 miles) of cave passages. One passage connects to an earlier-discovered cave, La Grotta di Fiume. Together, they form a large underground web under the land around the Comune di Genga, in the Parco Naturale Regionale della Gola della Rossa e di Frasassi.

Inside, the temperature is always 14C (58F) and the humidity always 100%. The air holds as much water as possible. The rest keeps dripping and forming the stalattiti e stalagmiti. (Those are your stalactites and stalagmites.)

You can take the general tour, of about 1600m (a bit less than a mile). (No photos, they say. That’s the special “Photo Tour.”) This tour is about an hour and 15 minutes and costs about €15. For those over 12 years old, there’s also the 2 hour Percorso Azzurro (Blue Tour), price unknown.

Last, there’s a Percorso Rosso (Red Tour), about 3 hours and described as somewhat challenging. In fact, the description on the website says, “you are hooked to a rope, turn to your left and try not to look down” over the 30m (100ft) drop. Then it’s Attenzione la testa! (watch your head!) and … di nuovo a piedi … (… back on your feet … ) so there are some low, narrow passages.

As a total aside, I visited Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota (180 miles of passages — a big boy cave) many years ago. They told us a caver can fit through a hole if it’s bigger than the span of your hand.

This is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Le Marche, but it’s mostly Italian tourists, not foreigners. TripAdvisor shows 1600 reviews in Italian, 100 in English.

Just to show you how crazy August is in Italy, here are the tour times, July vs. August:
July: 10:00 11:00 12:00 2:30 4:00 5:00
August: every 10 minutes from 9:00 to 6:00

So, I say we visit on a rainy day in the spring or fall. Do you want to join us? (You can go on your own on the Percorso Rosso.)

Image: By Kessiye (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Preliminary Contract

We have been working on two paths towards signing a preliminary purchase agreement. The first, working toward getting legal approval to build, has been moving steady since we started about a month ago. The second, getting a draft agreement, has been moving a bit more slowly, as the lawyer has been busy, but we received a draft of the contract today.

Status of the Design Approval

About two weeks ago, we received the good news that our project can be considered as a variance to the previously approved plan rather than as a complete new project. Our geometra, who is handling the technical parts of the design and working with the local government, the Comune di Colmurano, was asked to submit some additional design details. The expectation is that the project will then be formally approved. We heard this week that he should complete the preparation of these supporting documents by the middle of next week.

August in Italy

A key element of Italian culture will impact the timing of all our activities in the short term. It’s the widespread, near universal, vacation for nearly all of August. At least out in the countryside, businesses and government more or less close down. (I’m sure it’s not quite like this in Milan and other business centers.)

In fact, Kevin received an email from the window supplier on August 5 wishing everyone a wonderful vacation and announcing the business will be closed until September 5. As an American, he just shakes his head at the thought of a US building supplier just closing for a whole month.

Fortunately, the Comune will have a skeleton staff on a partial schedule, so we may be able to get some progress on the approval.

The Written Agreement
Compromesso draft: One column in Italian, one in English
Compromesso draft: One column in Italian, one in English

The original plan we agreed to verbally is that we would sign a preliminary purchase agreement and pay a 12,000€ deposit once we had the informal opinion that our project would be approved. We had agreed to this, but felt a little squirrelly about the risk of it only being an informal approval.

While we got that opinion a couple of weeks ago, we didn’t get a draft contract until today. Since we expect to submit the final documentation to the Comune within a week, I asked the lawyer and Kevin if we could forgo the preliminary agreement and just do a final purchase once we had the formal approval. This way, we’d eliminate that risk of owning a property we couldn’t build on.

The lawyer saw no problem. Kevin was concerned that the seller might balk at the delay.

He proposed a solution: we’d delay the signing until the final approval, we’d immediately pay the deposit, the final sale would happen within 21 days, and if the deal did fall apart, we’d pay the seller’s expenses for the geometra and architect, up to 3500€.

Kevin talked to the seller and he had no problem with this solution. He said he understood our desire to not buy if we can’t build, but didn’t want to be stuck with these preparation expenses.

So we got our “insurance policy” against the unlikely event we get a flat “no” from the Comune.

Next is to see how much August slows us down.


We made the final tweaks to the contract. On this pass, I noted that the property was described as being about 3200m2 or 3/4 of an acre. My memory was that we had been told it was closer to 3900m2 or just under an acre. Kevin said the property was as we “saw it on the ground” and any difference related to what was in the official records, not that the property was different in any way.

We should receive an email with the final contract tomorrow. Then we need to sign three copies and return the physical copies by regular mail.

Another Update

The property size is nearly 3700m2. The 3200 figure is for the land not including the building and its “courtyard”. When that extra 470m2 are added, we come out at 3700, about 0.9 acre.

Contract signed and returned. At first, it looked like it would cost about $70 to send them, based on the post office’s flat rate envelope or similar service from FedEx or UPS. Only cost about $7, since it was just documents and under a pound.

Image source: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure

Codice Fiscale

To be able to buy the property, both Anne and I need to have an Italian tax code number. The approval process seems suspiciously simple. Surprisingly, there is no official form that needs to be submitted in triplicate, personally hand-carried to be stamped by officials in four different offices, each of which is open just a few mornings a week, and accompanied by a video of your oldest child’s high school graduation.

In fact, there is no form at all. You write a short statement giving your full name, date and place of birth, and occupation, attach a copy of the main pages of your passport, and authorize your lawyer to apply for you. Done. We had it back in a day, all done from the comfort of our home.

Codice Fiscale Structure
Codice Fiscal Structure

(Now, the process to become a resident is more like the one I outlined above. I’ve read stories online of people being sent away because the ink color they used was wrong or the tax stamp was not aligned in exactly the right way. So we will have that to look forward to.)

The tax code you get looks more complicated than a social security number, but its purpose is similar. It’s 15 characters, constructed using a formula based on your basic facts. For example, mine is KTZDNJ55R08Z874I.

Now we can open a bank account and transfer euro as we need them.

First image source:
Second image source:

Good and Maybe

We awoke this morning to an email from Kevin, titled, In his typical, get-the-news-across style, “POSITIVE Opinion Colmurano Technical Office, Proceed with VARIANCE.”

A letter from the geometra saying the project can go forward as a variance, rather than as a new project.
Our preliminary opinion
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The email confirmed that the geometra, Jimmy Stefoni, had met with Verdicchio Saverio, il tecnico comunale di Colmurano. Jimmy had received the good news that our design could be considered a variance on the previously-approved plan, not a whole new plan. This should speed up the approval process dramatically; in fact, the projection from Jimmy is that he will have the needed documents back to il tecnico within 7-10 days and then the final approval process can begin.

One important point was not mentioned in the letter: could we build a pool? I wrote back to Kevin asking for confirmation that we are all set on the pool.

I thought I’d hear back right away that are good to go, but no word. My guess is that they forgot to ask about it.


This morning brought some clarification and confirmed the good news.

First, it is a final decision, not just an opinion, that the project can be evaluated as a variance, and it seems that the final approval to build requires more or less just the submission of some project details. (I had asked because I was uncertain of the translation and the terminology.)

The letter said:

Il Tecnico Comunale di Colmurano … riguardante la richiesta di un VARIANTE in corso d’opera per il progetto di ristrutturazione … per cui lo stesso ente a rilasciato PERMESSO DI RICOSTRUIRE … “

Kevin provided his translation:

The town technical office director confirmed that the project, as a VARIANCE, with the presentation of the new/modified project details, will allow the project to commence with a new PERMISSION TO CONSTRUCT.”

Second, while the pool wasn’t mentioned, it’s because it’s not part of the variance. Kevin assured me that pools are permitted by the Comune di Colmurano.

So, unless Giovanna, our avvocato, has identified a problem with the legalities, like the title or another of the pre-commitment issues (put link here), we’re good to go to proceed toward a final approval.

Very good news.

Image: Copyright Our Big Italian Adventure