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Italy goes to great lengths to debunk quake myth

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ROME >> Italian officials are going to extraordinary lengths to try to debunk an urban legend predicting a devastating earthquake in Rome on Wednesday.

The country’s Civil Protection department has posted a dense information packet on its website stressing that quakes can’t be predicted and that Rome isn’t particularly at risk.

Toll-free numbers have been set aside at city hall to field questions.

The national geophysics institute will open its doors to the public Wednesday to inform the curious and the concerned about seismology.

The effort is all designed to debunk a purported prediction of a major Roman quake on May 11, 2011, attributed to self-taught seismologist Raffaele Bendandi, who died in 1979. The only problem is Bendandi never made the prediction, says Paola Lagorio, president of the association in charge of Bendandi’s documentation.

Lagorio insists that there is no evidence in Bendandi’s papers of any such precise a prediction and blames unidentified forces who want to “frighten people and create this situation of panic that is attributed to a prediction Bendandi never made.”

Despite her denials and the concerted effort by seismologists to calm nerves, some Romans are taking precautionary measures. Italian agriculture lobby Coldiretti reported Tuesday that a survey of farm-hotels around the capital indicate many Romans are leaving town for the day.

“One cannot speak of an exodus, but there are cases of entire families that have decided to leave the city for the country,” Coldiretti said in a statement.

Officials have blamed the media and viral rumor-mongering on the Internet for fueling fears. On Tuesday, the Rome daily La Repubblica headlined its Rome section “Holiday and exodus, earthquake psychosis,” reporting both official denials of a quake alongside predictions that many offices would be empty Wednesday.

Consumer group Codacons lodged a formal complaint with Rome prosecutors on Tuesday denouncing media outlets that added to the alarm.

That said, there likely will be an earthquake Wednesday: On average, there are 30 earthquakes registered every day in Italy, according to the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology. Rome, however, has only a moderate seismic risk compared to more volatile regions in the Apennine mountains.

The last major quake in the region was the 6.3-magnitude temblor that struck the central Italian city of L’Aquila and its surroundings on April 6, 2009. More than 300 people were killed in the quake zone. The temblor was felt in Rome, 120 kilometers (75 miles) away, but caused no damage in the capital.

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