PM orders a ‘refreshing’ of earthquake readiness

After cluster of minor tremors, Netanyahu gets seismic situation assessment from top IDF and civilian officials

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the middle in black, flanked by then-home front defense Minister Gilad Erdan, in blue, and then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg in May 2013. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the middle in black, flanked by then-home front defense Minister Gilad Erdan, in blue, and then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg in May 2013. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

In the wake of a succession of minor earthquakes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday convened a special ministerial meeting to discuss national preparedness in case of a major quake and “refresh” procedures for coping with a quake.

Netanyahu ordered the Home Front command to make sure citizens knew what to do in the event of a quake, and ministers also decided to arrange earthquake preparedness drills in the north of the country, where this week’s tremors were centered.

Two tremors Sunday were centered in the Sea of Galilee area, and numerous buildings in the area’s main city, Tiberias, sustained minor damage. Tiberias City Engineer, Moti Lavie, said “hundreds of buildings” in the city predate instructions in force since 1980 on building to minimize likely earthquake damage, and that “they are likely to collapse” in the event of a quake registering 5 or over on the Richter scale. Nationwide, an estimated 100,000 buildings are not properly constructed to withstand quake damage, Channel 2 news reported Monday.

Some Tiberias schools held drills on Monday, reminding students to head for open spaces in the event of a quake.

Netanyahu met Monday to discuss “refreshing” earthquake preparations with Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Home Front Command chief Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg. The meeting came on the heels of a similar discussion between IDF Home Front Command and the emergency services officials Sunday night following a fourth earthquake in northern Israel in just four days.

Sunday night’s meeting was held at the Ministry of Home Front Defense at the behest of Erdan (Likud), and was attended by representatives of Israel’s paramedic, firefighting and police services, and of the Defense, Health and Education ministries.

The officials decided to continue monitoring the situation while increasing home front readiness for natural disasters.

Twice Sunday, minor earthquakes shook northern Israel. No injuries or major damage were reported in the the 3.6-magnitude quakes. Both epicenters were near Kibbutz Ginosar, on the Sea of Galilee. 

Similarly powerful quakes rattled the north early Saturday morning and Thursday. Last Sunday, a 6.4-magnitude quake, centered in the Mediterranean Sea near Crete, was felt in Athens, Egypt and Israel. In September, an early-morning 3.5-magnitude quake was felt in the northern Dead Sea area, including in Jerusalem.

Israel held a massive Home Front drill last October, codenamed Turning Point 6, which was aimed at raising the preparedness of citizens, local authorities, and emergency services for dealing with natural disasters.

The exercise 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.

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 at the time.

“An earthquake in Israel is more dangerous than war,” the then-chief of the Home Front Command warned.

In 2011, then state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss presented the government with a devastating report on Israeli preparedness for natural disasters.

“Unfortunately the State Comptroller’s Office finds itself cautioning and reproving for 20 years, with a number of reports on the failure to prepare for earthquakes in Israel,” Lindenstrauss wrote at the time. He called the report a “red flag for the prime minister.”

“Generations of Israeli governments have caused severe neglect that has continued for years,” wrote Lindenstrauss, adding that “we have not a moment to spare and we need immediate action.”

The former state comptroller added that despite two similar previous reports, in 2001 and 2004, nothing was done to improve Israeli infrastructure in preparation for a massive earthquake.

“This inspection found that significant failures in this field were not fixed and have even worsened,” Lindenstrauss wrote.

Seismologist Dov Lakovsky of the Geophysical Institute of Israel told The Times of Israel Sunday that there was no cause for alarm and that the recent quakes were just “a bit stronger than usual.” Such tremblers, he said, “happen all the time.”

According to the GII’s statistics, seven earthquakes strong enough to be felt have rattled Israel in 2013. The most powerful one, centered near the Suez Canal on June 1, registered 5.0 on the Richter scale.

Israel’s last major earthquake shook the region in 1927 — a 6.2-magnitude quake that killed 500 and injured another 700. An earthquake in 1837 left as many as 5,000 people dead. According to a 2010 Haaretz report, major earthquakes strike Israel once every 80 years or so, meaning the country may be due for a serious natural disaster.

Gavriel Fiske and Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report. 

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