On shaky ground
Sunday’s magnitude 7.3 earthquake, which killed more than 500 people in Iran and injured thousands across the region, was another grim wake-up call for Israel. Unfortunately, we as a nation have talked about preparedness for our own future temblor disaster more than we have taken practical measures to prepare for such a disaster.
Just this past June, security forces and emergency services conducted another drill on improving cooperation among various agencies in the event of a major earthquake. Despite this apparent awareness of the danger, the country’s actual measures on the ground lag far behind what is necessary.
The quake on the Iran-Iraq border was close enough for Israelis in Petah Tikva, Kiryat Ono and Ra’anana to feel their windows, lamps and furniture shake. Experts agree that a major earthquake is statistically due in our own region every 80-100 years. The last major earthquake to hit the region was the Jericho earthquake of 1927, which claimed the lives of some 500 people and brought down the tower of the Augusta Victoria Hospital on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus. However, the Safed earthquake some 100 years earlier, on January 1, 1827, resulted in an estimated 7,000 casualties.
Tamir Levy, chief engineer for the Association for Better Housing, warns that most homes throughout the country would not withstand a powerful earthquake.
“A large number of the residential homes in Israel will be damaged by a large earthquake regardless of when they were built,” Levy said, as reported by The Jerusalem Post’s Sarah Levi on Tuesday.
He added pointedly: “It is not possible to prevent earthquakes, but it is possible to prepare for them and thus reduce the damage they cause. Since earthquakes cannot be predicted, we should be prepared at all times.
“Preparedness means, first and foremost, to ensure that the buildings in which we live and work meet the stringent building standards required to protect against earthquakes.”
Following a 2012 earthquake-preparedness drill, then- OC Home Front Command Maj.-Gen. Eyal Eizenberg declared that “an earthquake in Israel is more dangerous than war,” as it would result in “damage to life and property on a much more significant scale.”
The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s Home Front Readiness Subcommittee issued a report recently, stating that if Israel were to be struck by a 7.5 magnitude quake, an estimated 7,000 would be killed, another 8,600 injured and nearly 400,000 left homeless. A ballpark estimate of the resulting damage would amount to some NIS 200 billion.
Despite the clear and present future danger, the National Emergency Authority lists some 80,000 buildings, including schools and hospitals, that were built before 1980 and thus do not meet current standards for earthquake safety.
The government’s mushrooming Tama 38 policy is meant to reinforce older buildings to withstand quakes, while simultaneously providing needed housing by adding two stories to existing apartment buildings.
However, while generally laudable, this policy is being driven on the ground by contractors who are in the program for the profits it provides. This means that most of the Tama 38 projects are being realized in the country’s cities, where property values are the highest, and not in the periphery, where there are more older, vulnerable homes.
The scope of Tama 38 is also nothing to applaud, given that only 2,700 buildings throughout the country have received approval for reconstruction.
TamaFix notes that most of the Tama 38 projects are being built in the major cities, thus ignoring hundreds of thousands of families in places like Arad, Tiberias and other communities located along the Jordan Rift Valley.
As of this past summer, only 13 buildings in the periphery have been reinforced and brought up to the current construction code to secure them in the event of an earthquake.
In glaring contrast, since Tama 38 began in 2005, a total of 4,385 buildings in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem have been reinforced.
A massive government program to reinforce residents’ homes against the apparent inevitability of a future earthquake disaster must be applied equitably to Israel’s citizens wherever they live. The quake clock is ticking and we are running out of time to prepare to save ourselves.