In largest-ever drill, Israeli Navy prepares for massive, devastating quake

Representatives from 9 foreign countries and NATO participate in naval exercise ‘Mighty Waves 2019,’ simulating aftermath of tremor

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Thousands dead, over 100,000 injured, hospitals destroyed and national infrastructure in shambles following a powerful earthquake in northern Israel — this was the scenario simulated in a first-of-its-kind multinational exercise held by the Israeli Navy this week.

“Mighty Waves 2019” brought representatives from 10 navies and NATO to the Haifa port on Israel’s northern coast, in what Israeli officials said was its largest naval exercise ever. This was also the Israeli Navy’s first exercise dedicated solely to earthquake response.

“The goal was to learn how to give the best response possible under complicated circumstances,” Maj. Amichai Rachamim, the head of the Navy’s exercises department, told The Times of Israel last week.

“We have created an infrastructure that makes us feel comfortable that we could do this in the real world, if need be,” he said over the phone on Thursday. “There are lacunae, but the fact that we’re doing this kind of exercise is good. We need to find the problems and train around them.”

The United States, France, and Greece fully participated in the exercise, sending ships and personnel to Haifa to take part in drills alongside their Israeli counterparts. Representatives from Cyprus, Chile, Italy, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and NATO observed and took part in non-physical aspects of the drill.

US Commander Kelley Jones speaks with an Israeli naval officer as part of the ‘Mighty Waves 2019’ naval exercise in August 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The naval drill had two main goals: to practice setting up a “sea gate,” through which the majority of the humanitarian aid Israel would need in the aftermath of a massive earthquake would pass, and, more generally, to learn how to more efficiently work with the various national and international organizations that would be involved in the disaster relief work.

In addition, the various navies taking part in the exercise also simulated search and rescue operations at sea.

Some aspects of Mighty Waves have been tested in the past, including the creation of a “sea gate” in Ashdod port as part of an exercise several years ago. But never before have the naval-related after-effects of an earthquake been simulated at this level, Israeli naval officials said.

One of the fundamental assumptions of Mighty Waves is that in the case of an earthquake or other large-scale natural disaster, the majority of humanitarian aid would come from the sea, not from the air, as even the largest cargo planes can only carry a fraction of what ships can.

The Israeli Navy trains with foreign navies in response to a simulated massive earthquake that strikes northern Israel in the ‘Mighty Waves 2019’ naval exercise in August 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Safely and quickly moving that amount of aid throughout the country, whose roads and infrastructure would presumably be damaged in the tremor, would require a massive effort by the Israeli Navy, the ports, and a number of other national emergency response services.

In order to develop the scenarios simulated in last week’s exercise, the Israeli Navy and Israel’s National Emergency Management Authority — known by its Hebrew acronym Rachel — studied the earthquakes that hit Haiti in 2010 and Japan in 2011, Rachamim said.

Israel lies along an active fault line: the Syrian-African rift, a tear in the earth’s crust that runs the length of the border separating Israel and Jordan. The last major earthquake to hit the region was in 1927 — a 6.2-magnitude tremor that killed 500 people and injured 700 — and seismologists estimate that such earthquakes occur in this region approximately every 100 years.

Brig. Gen. Gil Agnisky meets with visiting naval officers as part of the ‘Mighty Waves 2019’ naval exercise in August 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

“So we’ve got about eight more years,” Brig. Gen. Gil Aginsky, the commander of the Haifa Base, where the exercise took place, told journalists last week, quickly adding, “I’m just kidding.”

Mighty Waves simulated a 7.5-magnitude quake striking the Beit Shean Valley in northern Israel, killing 7,000 people, injuring thousands more, damaging hundreds of buildings and leaving over 150,000 homeless.

“The [simulated] earthquake caused damage to national infrastructure, including power grids, water supply, communications, roads and hospitals,” the army said.

Following such an event, Israel would declare a state of emergency and request assistance from foreign governments. For the purposes of Mighty Waves 2019, the US, France, and Greece agreed to provide this humanitarian aid, but in the case of an actual earthquake, many other countries in the Mediterranean and surrounding area would be expected to help as well, Israeli officials said.

“We have a number of friends who will stand at our side when we need it,” Rachamim said.

In the first hours after an earthquake, the navy and other relevant bodies would assess the damage to the country’s ports — the largest being Haifa and Ashdod — and determine which was in the best shape to receive the incoming humanitarian aid.

Rachel would determine what is needed [in humanitarian aid], whether it’s tents, water, medicine, or something we haven’t even thought of, like train tracks because we don’t have enough of them,” Rachamim said.

As warships are typically much faster than commercial shipping boats, the initial humanitarian aid would likely be brought in on military vessels, Aginsky said.

We have a number of friends who will stand at our side when we need it

For Mighty Waves, the US Navy 6th Fleet’s USS Donald Cook, French FREMM Auvergne and Greek HS Aigaion filled the role of incoming aid ships.

In order to manage the relief effort, Israel would establish the Naval Coordination Center made up of representatives from the navy, Rachel, police, the ports authority, medical services and the foreign navies.

According to Rachamim, who helped plan and manage the exercise, the operation of this NCC was one of the most important aspects of Mighty Waves.

“We learned to speak a common language,” he said. “We are in a different place than we were before. We’re not in a place where we’re uncertain. We know who to speak with and how.”

He gave an example of a rescue operation at sea from the exercise that demonstrated this inter- and intra-national cooperation.

The Israeli Navy trains with foreign navies in response to a simulated massive earthquake that strikes northern Israel in the ‘Mighty Waves 2019’ naval exercise in August 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The person who rescued the victim from the water was in an Israeli inflatable boat. An Israeli doctor on an Israeli ship gave first aid. Then a Greek inflatable boat arrived and took them to an American ship. Finally, a French helicopter transported them to an Israeli hospital,” he said.

In addition to the multi-national coordination, this rescue exercise also required the Israeli military to work with Haifa’s civilian Rambam Medical Center.

“I think we’re the first to have done this,” Rachamim said.

The naval officer said he believed that nine foreign navies and NATO decided to participate since they understood that this type of exercise is beneficial not only to the country running it — Israel, in this case — but to all nations, as there is no telling when and where disaster will strike.

“This is a shared issue. Only God — if you believe in God — or destiny knows where a natural disaster will happen,” he said.

While he acknowledged that there were still gaps in Israel’s preparedness for an earthquake — indeed a 2016 comptroller report highlighted several glaring ones that are still in effect — Rachamim expressed satisfaction with Mighty Waves.

“The increased awareness is the real achievement of this exercise. I hope [what we’ve learned] won’t be needed, but if it is, we’re ready,” he said.

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