Emergency Authority: Israel unprepared for major quake
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Emergency Authority: Israel unprepared for major quake

Knesset committee told country must invest more to prepare for a disaster scenario of up to 7,000 deaths, with 170,000 left homeless

Rescuers search amid rubble following an earthquake in Amatrice Italy, Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Rescuers search amid rubble following an earthquake in Amatrice Italy, Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Experts told a government committee Wednesday that the country is not prepared for the thousands of deaths and hundreds of billions of shekels in damage which could occur in the event of a major earthquake in the region.

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s Home-Front Readiness Subcommittee met to discuss Israel’s earthquake readiness, based on an assessment that in the event of such a catastrophe the country could face up to 7,000 casualties and damages of up to NIS 200 billion ($52.5 billion).

Bezalel Treiber, head of the National Emergency Authority, presented the committee with plans for dealing with a powerful earthquake similar to the one that struck Italy in August. A second, far less devastating tremor occurred earlier this week.

In addition to 7,000 potential fatalities in a quake, the authority is preparing for 8,600 seriously injured victims, 9,500 trapped in rubble and 170,000 left homeless. The assessment was that 98 percent of those trapped would be rescued within the first week, predominantly by family and neighbors.

The Treasury assessed that damages could amount to more than NIS 90 billion ($24 billion) including building repairs and loss of business productivity for the following year. That, however, is far less than the assessment of the Emergency Authority, which claimed that — taking into account medical costs, rubble-clearing work and structural and environmental damage — the total could reach NIS 150-200 billion.

Israeli soldiers during rescue attempts of injured and trapped people from the ruins of buildings in Nepal, following the deadly earthquake on April 28, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson)
Israeli soldiers during rescue attempts of injured and trapped people from the ruins of buildings in Nepal, following the deadly earthquake on April 28, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson)

The government was also accused of not doing enough to quake-proof buildings. According to the Emergency Authority’s reckoning there are 80,000 buildings in the country which are over three stories high and were built before 1980. Of those only 2,700 have received approval for the government’s Tama 38 incentive to reinforce and retrofit them to withstand earthquakes.

Tama 38 projects do not use public funds, relying instead on contractors taking on the work in exchange for rights to build and sell new apartments in the buildings. Einat Ganon of the Housing Ministry’s Urban Renewal Department said that the government had set aside NIS 185 million to strengthen some buildings on the periphery, but she stressed that another NIS 5 billion was required to reinforce all buildings at risk.

The bulk of Tama 38 reinforcement projects is concentrated in the larger Tel Aviv area, while in cities such as Eilat, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beit Shean and Tiberias — which lie closer to the fault lines, and would be hit harder in the event of an earthquake — older, more vulnerable structures remain untouched.

The country is also said to be insufficiently prepared for identifying victims of an earthquake on this scale, lacking the facilities and trained personnel to process the potential number of bodies in the event of such a disaster.

MK Amir Peretz, head of the subcommittee, concluded the meeting by acknowledging that there was a massive gap between what was needed to prepare for a powerful earthquake and the resources devoted to the matter.

Peretz, of the opposition’s Zionist Union, said that the government appeared to be waiting for a catastrophe to happen before addressing the problem. “The Treasury must work to change these budgets,” he said. “This must happen in the next few years.”

The aftermath of the 1927 earthquake in Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock in the background. (photo credit: public domain via Library of Congress)
The aftermath of the 1927 earthquake in Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock in the background. (photo credit: public domain via Library of Congress)

Seismologists say that with Israel and its neighbors sitting on a major fault line, a major quake such as the one that hit Italy could happen at any time.

Israel and the Palestinian territories lie atop a tear in the earth’s crust running along the country’s eastern flank — the margins of two tectonic plates — which seismologists deem a high-risk zone.

As the Arabian plate, on which Jordan sits, grinds northward at 20 millimeters per year relative to the neighboring African plate to its west, earthquakes intermittently occur, sowing death and destruction.

At least 17 historically recorded major earthquakes have rattled the country in the past 2,000 years, causing significant destruction and loss of life, according to a 1994 article published in The Israel Exploration Journal.

The last major quake struck on July 11, 1927, killing over 400 and leaving “not a house in Jerusalem or Hebron… without some damage,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported in the days following.

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