Disaster in Italy

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The tragic loss of life from the collapse of the Genoa motorway bridge is all the more moving because of the spectacular nature of the disaster. An entire 200-meter section crashed down along with one of the supporting towers, falling along with trucks and automobiles into the river and land 45 meters below. The final death toll may be over 50, including at least three children.

The distinctive 1.2 kilometer Morandi Bridge spanned the Polcevera River on the A10 autostrada, which is a key north-south route to France and the Italian Riviera. It carried some 25 million vehicles a year, both tourists and commercial, many of the latter trucks running from Genoa’s important port. The income from the A10 tolls runs into tens of billions of euros every year. Concrete also crashed down onto two railway lines but did not affect the larger set of sidings and lines that run down to the docks. Even so, train movements have been halted for fear that other parts of the bridge could now collapse. The disruption to the 51 million tons of goods that pass through Italy’s biggest port is likely to be substantial and provide a further hit to the country’s already beleaguered economy.

The Morandi Bridge was built in the 1960s and had an expected life of 100 years. But almost from the outset there were problems with the design. It is being reported that one major challenge was a miscalculation in durability of the concrete. There have been repeated concerns about the structural integrity of the bridge. Major work was carried out in 1990 and then again two years ago. One engineer is said to have been warning for the last decade that a serious failure was imminent but his advice appears to have been ignored. Even so, before Tuesday’s catastrophe, engineers were onsite, dealing with an issue at the base of the tower that collapsed. There was also extremely heavy rain when the bridge came down.

Interior minister Matteo Salvini, who is the real power behind the new right-wing coalition government, immediately promised to prosecute whoever was responsible. While such a vow may be a reasonable reaction after such a very public tragedy, Salvini might have done better by asserting that this disaster epitomizes so much of what has been rotten in the state of Italian politics since 1945. While the A10 alone brings in to the Italian treasury billions of euros each year, since the 2008 global financial collapse, Italy has spent a pittance on its road infrastructure. Last year the investment was a mere four billion euros.

The complacency of officials in the face of this disaster has been breathtaking. A top manager at Autostrade per l’Italia, the company which runs more than half of Italy’s 6,750 kilometers, insisted the collapse was “unexpected and unpredictable” and went on to assert that “the bridge was constantly monitored and supervised well beyond what the law required”. Time and again around the world such statements are trotted out by senior people. However, if the Morandi Bridge was so well monitored and supervised, why are some 50 people dead because it collapsed? Such mealy-mouthed excuses are utterly contemptible.


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