Day-to-day life in Naples, Italy, a city that defines world-class municipal malfunction, can seem like "one long emergency," to borrow a phrase from Bruce Springsteen. Narrow streets. Buildings in disrepair. Pickpockets on the prowl. And we haven't even gotten to the Mob hits and trash heaps. Naples has attracted the global spotlight in recent years for a recurring emergenza of uncollected garbage piled along city blocks, the result of a toxic mix of dismal political leadership and organized crime's muscling in on the trash-collecting business. It must also be said that there is much beauty to behold in this bustling Mediterranean city, home to historic palazzi and the world's best pizza.
Still, even a particularly bad (or putrid) period of everyday woes pales next to the scenarios that residents of this anything-can-happen city try their best to avoid thinking about: the greater Naples area is uniquely exposed to a trio of natural threats--earthquakes, volcanoes, flooding--compounded by all the famous man-made disorder.
"There's always a lot of confusion, but we're used to it," says Livia Savarese, 23, a Naples psychology student and part-time social-services worker. "The perception of danger is zero. In Naples, people live for today and don't think about the future."
The April earthquake in L'Aquila, which left 294 people dead and nearly 40,000 homeless, woke sleeping residents in downtown Naples 113 miles to the south, a reminder that Mother Nature is an urban dweller too. Italy is at the crossroads of two fault lines and has suffered at least 17 major earthquakes since 1693, including the 1908 quake in Messina, Sicily, that left a staggering 100,000 people dead.
Experts say that now as then, the risk that a disaster will turn into all-out catastrophe depends on both the local conditions before the event and the response afterward. Italy's Civil Protection Agency, in charge of the latter, received high marks for its response to the L'Aquila quake. "The first 48 hours are crucial for saving lives," notes Guido Bertolaso, head of the Civil Protection Agency. "After that you lose a lot of hope."
Naples does not sit squarely on a fault line but is close enough to be at risk for major damage if a strong quake hits nearby. The city barely escaped the full wrath of the 1980 Irpinia earthquake (3,000 killed), whose epicenter was 25 miles east. With a population of 4.4 million, greater Naples shares the problem that appears to have aggravated the damage and death toll in L'Aquila: a high percentage of buildings that don't meet adequate seismic standards. Naples has both old buildings that have not been retrofitted and more recent buildings that were not constructed according to codes put in place in the early 1980s after the Irpinia tragedy.
Officials have to be ready to respond to a crisis in Naples, as they do in other quake-threatened metropolises such as Istanbul and Tokyo. "We know that a big city can be hit by a disaster, and you need the best planning, best organization possible to avert a total catastrophe," says Bertolaso. "In Naples the emergency response would be very complicated."