Israeli buildings face major earthquake risk, despite efforts to upgrade them

According to official estimates, at least 600,000 residential homes and many other buildings remain unprotected, as experts urge more comprehensive action

A building that has undergone refurbishment and expansion through TAMA 38 next to a building that has not. (YouTube screenshot)
A building that has undergone refurbishment and expansion through TAMA 38 next to a building that has not. (YouTube screenshot)

Experts have consistently warned that a major earthquake centered in Israel could damage hundreds of thousands of homes in the country, despite the fact that a program targeted at reinforcing residential buildings to render them earthquake-proof has been in place since 2005.

That is when TAMA 38 regulations came into effect. They were intended to create a framework in which the free market would deliver earthquake resistance. In return for strengthening older apartment blocks and enhancing existing apartments, developers would receive a gift of valuable additional building rights, along with tax exemptions, which would provide sufficient incentive to invest.

The building engineering standard for earthquake resistance — known as standard 413 — has been mandatory since 1980. The majority of buildings constructed before then are highly unlikely to have been built in ways that would withstand an earthquake, with taller buildings more vulnerable to shocks. TAMA 38 was therefore designated for buildings of more than two stories and built before 1980, although it was not aimed at particular geographic regions.

Israel’s key area of vulnerability is along the Syrian African Rift, which runs through the Jordan Valley, down the eastern side of the country. The main population centers at risk are thought to be Tiberias, Beit She’an, Safed, Kiryat Shmona, and Hatzor HaGlilit, which all contain large numbers of buildings built before 1980.

However, the vast majority of TAMA 38 projects have taken place in Tel Aviv and its surrounding areas, and in Jerusalem, where the addition of penthouse floors has proven highly lucrative. The cities most in need of earthquake reinforcement have been neglected, as property values in those locales were not high enough for the extra building rights to entice developers.

It also takes between three and five years to have an individual TAMA 38 project approved, and the very request for approval requires a majority of existing building residents sign on for it, a requirement that can end up acting as a brake on the TAMA 38 effort.

Recognizing the deficiencies of the TAMA 38 rules, there have been numerous changes made to the framework over the years — including allowing the demolition and re-building of single apartment blocks. There were plans to end the provisions by the autumn of 2022, but with no replacement in sight, the framework has been extended for another year.

Reports last month suggest that as many as a million homes in Israel are at risk of collapse if a sufficiently strong earthquake hit the country. The state comptroller puts the number at 600,000. Almost half of the buildings in Tiberias are thought to not be earthquake-resistant, and much smaller tremors there last month caused cracks to open up in around 60 locations, according to residents.

Cracks that appeared in a building in Tiberias following an earthquake on January 23, 2022, prompting an evacuation of residents. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Raul Srugo, president of the Israeli Builders Association, told The Times of Israel on Monday: “The only way to prepare is to remove barriers that prevent urban renewal in general and in the periphery in particular. We brought to the last government a plan that would make this possible, including tax benefits, speeding up bureaucracy and support from the state for infrastructure budgeting. The previous government decided to cancel TAMA 38, which is now the main option for the mass implementation of earthquake protection for houses. TAMA 38 must be extended, alongside the implementation of our proposals.”

ָָָA sign declares an upcoming evacuation and construction project in the Gonen neighborhood of Jerusalem, January 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

TAMA 38 does nothing, however, to address the issues with non-residential buildings, many of which were constructed before 1980, including a large number of schools and hospitals.

In 2018, plans were made to spend NIS 5 billion ($1.5 billion) between 2019 and 2030 on the reinforcement of buildings to withstand earthquakes. To date, only NIS 7 million ($2 million) has been allocated for spending in the northern region of the country.

Asked about the earthquake resistance of buildings used for educational purposes, the Education Ministry told The Times of Israel on Monday that plans are in place for progressive upgrades over the next 12 years, funded through a dedicated budget. The program is not targeted at areas of highest risk, but, out of 1,600 buildings constructed before 1980, the start of a process to address issues is underway in around 1,100 of them.

The Health Ministry said Monday that buildings constructed after 1980 were earthquake resistant, with a 2018 decision providing for an annual NIS 18 million ($5.2 million) to be spent on strengthening them further.

Priority was being given to hospitals close to the Syrian African Rift, among them the northern Ziv Hospital in Safed and the Rambam and Bnei Zion medical centers in Haifa. The Clalit health fund was financing work to strengthen the Yoseftal Hospital in Eilat, on Israel’s southernmost tip.

A ministry spokesperson said hospitals were prepared for earthquakes on an ongoing basis by guidance, drills, and the availability of equipment such as satellite telephones. Furthermore, ministry inspectors check hospital readiness every year.

Earthquake-proofing can be carried out in a number of ways. But traditional non-reinforced concrete, which was widely used in Israeli construction in the past, makes buildings vulnerable.

Instead, reinforced concrete, wood and steel, as well as new materials in development, allow a building to respond to the horizontal waves that hit it when an earthquake strikes. In place of collapsing from the stress of the seismic activity, an earthquake-proof building can vibrate and will remain standing.

Artist’s rendering of close up of proposed ‘Between the cities,’ 100-story skyscraper in Tel Aviv, framed in steel (courtesy, Miloslavsky Architects)

One popular option for earthquake reinforcement is the use of shock absorbers. These can be as simple as rubber blocks, about 30-50 centimeters (12 to 20 inches) thick, which sit underneath the framework of the building as part of the foundations. Or a whole building may be constructed on a base of pads made of steel, rubber and lead, which moves during an earthquake while ensuring that the building above remains steady.

When building skyscrapers, engineers deploy a technique known as “pendulum power.” A large ball is suspended from steel cables that connect to a hydraulic system at the top of the building. If the building begins to sway, the ball acts as a pendulum and moves in the opposite direction to stabilize it. Some also use steel braces as part of the walls, which can help to counteract pressure.

Technology is being used to develop components that will retain their shape under pressure. Fiber-reinforced plastic wrap can add 38 percent extra strength when wrapped around columns. Jerusalem-based startup Seevix is making a bio-polymer material based on spider silk, which is exceptionally strong and flexible, while others are working on mussel and bamboo fibers.

An illustration of the sponge-like Seevix biopolymer, that mimics properties of spider silk. (Courtesy)

At Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev, the Center for Creative Ecology has also successfully experimented with buildings of mud and straw. Derived from traditional Nepalese building practices, the combination appears to offer a low-tech, environmentally friendly model for earthquake resistance.

Three years ago, researchers probing the bed of the Dead Sea predicted that a quake measuring at least 6.5 on the Richter magnitude scale (smaller than either of those in Turkey) would almost certainly hit Israel over the coming years, causing widespread damage.

A dedicated inter-ministerial steering committee has formal responsibility for preparing for earthquakes. Speaking Monday, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman highlighted previous work by his office highlighting deficiencies in Israel’s earthquake preparedness. Addressing high school students in Rehovot and using a soccer analogy, he said: “Perhaps this is the 90th minute to make the proper preparations to prevent a disaster of this magnitude here. Instead of waiting for a commission of inquiry after a disaster, the government should act on preparedness before a disaster.”

Sue Surkes contributed to this report.

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