First day of disaster drill shows Israel unprepared for catastrophe

‘Earthquake in Israel more dangerous than war,’ Home Front Defense commander says

Israeli and American soldiers participate in a joint earthquake drill in Holon on October 21, 2012. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Israeli and American soldiers participate in a joint earthquake drill in Holon on October 21, 2012. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The initial stages of a major preparedness drill launched on Sunday exposed significant shortcomings in Israel’s ability to respond to natural and man-made disasters, particularly in the lack of coordination between the army, the police and emergency services, Channel 10 reported.

Israel opened a five-day drill on Sunday to test the response of emergency services to an earthquake and tsunami. Code-named Turning Point 6, the drill was aimed at raising the preparedness of citizens, local authorities, and emergency services for dealing with natural disasters.

At the end of the first day of Turning Point 6, military and government sources reported that Israel is inadequately prepared to handle earthquake emergencies, citing a lack of coordination between the army, the police and emergency services which, in turn, delayed the evacuation and medical-treatment services.

In one area of the exercise, 200 “children” were killed when a school collapsed in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon.

One of the greatest challenges to Israel’s preparedness is the fact that the majority of buildings in the areas likely to be hit by earthquakes were built before the first Gulf War in 1990, and have not been properly reinforced to withstand earthquakes.

Should Israel, in fact, face an earthquake emergency, it would be necessary to receive a great deal of assistance from around the world in handling the damage and injuries, Channel 2 reported.

Home Front Command chief Maj.-Gen. Eyal Eisenberg on Sunday said that even a reasonably powerful earthquake in Israel would result in “damage to life and property on a much more significant scale” than in the scenario of war.

“An earthquake in Israel is more dangerous than war,” Eisenberg warned.

According to the script, an earthquake of moderate magnitude (measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale) was “felt” Sunday at 11 a.m. in southern Israel, near Eilat. Thirty minutes later, a stronger earthquake — 7.1 on the Richter scale — “hit” the Upper Galilee. At noon, shortly after a tsunami warning, citizens were required to imagine a giant wave crashing against the shores of Israel, causing heavy destruction in Tel Aviv. The drill continued in the Hula Valley area, where a tremor measuring 4.2 on the Richter scale was enacted at 7 p.m.

According to Home Front estimations, a real-life occurrence of the above scenario would lead to 7,000 deaths, 8,600 people injured in serious condition, 37,000 injured lightly, 9,500 trapped under rubble and about 170,000 displaced and homeless. In addition, 28,000 buildings are expected to be heavily damaged, with hundreds of thousands of buildings expected to incur light damage.

The prognosis is grimmer yet for the coastal Dan region in central Israel, where some 95,000 buildings — including 300 schools — could collapse in the event of an earthquake of a magnitude of 7 or higher on the Richter scale. According to the Home Front Command, 70 percent of buildings in the area — which houses about 42 percent of Israel’s population — do not meet the earthquake-resistance standards set in 1980, as they were constructed prior to that year.

Radio and television kicked off the drill on Sunday morning and reported a moderate temblor in the Eilat region. Radio reports, though, were barely heard — a first hiccup, with many listeners not registering the instruction to head for an open or protected space.

The drill included television and radio broadcasts, which interrupted scheduled programming and urged citizens to rush to open spaces wherever possible. Alternatives included finding sheltered rooms and standing under door frames.

Schoolchildren across the country participated in enactments in their schools.

Turning Point 6 coincided with the beginning of the largest-ever joint Israeli and American military drill, in which the army is preparing for a disaster of a different kind that would see the country defending its skies from an enemy onslaught.

The prime minister, commenting on the two types of emergencies for which Israel is preparing, said, “When there are rockets, everyone should go inside; when there’s an earthquake, it’s outside — a difference it’s important to remember.”

Billed as the largest joint exercise ever between the countries, Austere Challenge 12 will see a total of 3,500 American and Israeli troops taking part in a month-long air-defense simulation.

The joint exercise will run until after the US presidential elections on November 6 and will simulate many of the aerial threats that Israel faces: a multi-front attack with mortars, rockets, drones, and short- and long-range ballistic missiles.

The David’s Sling short-range missile protection system will be tested along with multiple Iron Dome batteries, advanced Patriot batteries and Arrow 2, Israel’s medium-range missile defense system. Most of the action will be simulated with only a small component of live fire.

The drill will cost some $30 million per side.

The drill started amid a cooling of talk of a possible military strike on Iran, after several months of saber-rattling.

Generals from both armies stressed that the exercise is meant to reflect reality in the Middle East and is “not related to any specific world events.”

The drill, originally slated to take place months ago, was postponed at Israel’s behest.

Despite reports that the drill had been cut back by thousands of troops, the US Third Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin said last week that the “scale of the exercise and the number of forces participating has remained unchanged.”

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