In November 2007 MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad ) gave a one-minute speech in the Knesset plenum about Israel's lack of earthquake preparedness and said that a large earthquake, of the kind that destroys entire cities, takes place in Israel once every 80-90 years. The last such earthquake took place in 1927, 84 years ago.
After Zahalka's speech, then-Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik (Kadima ) showed initiative and set up a parliamentary inquiry committee to investigate Israel's earthquake preparedness, headed by MK Moshe Kahlon (Likud ). In the wake of Friday's earthquake in Japan, it seems essential to note a few facts that have been presented to the Kahlon committee.
Nearly half of all schools in Israel were built before a standard for earthquake-resistant construction was introduced in 1980, and are at risk of collapse. According to a rough estimate, this means that nearly 1 million children attend schools that were not built to withstand earthquakes.
If there is a major earthquake here, it is expected to take place, as in the past, near the Syrian-African Rift, making Eilat and northern Israel the local danger zones. Entire wards in four hospitals in the north are expected to collapse if a major earthquake hits.
There are seven prisons in the country that are not built to withstand earthquakes - including the walls around them. On one hand, the prison staff and the inmates are in danger. On the other hand, hundreds or even thousands of prisoners, whether they are incarcerated for security offenses or other crimes, could escape if disaster strikes. In addition, five police stations are classified as dangerous in an earthquake. That's what happens when you put police stations in historic buildings.
And here are another few facts about earthquakes: The phone systems will collapse - and so will the bridges, making it tough for help to arrive. The few firefighters Israel has will make it only to the worst spots.
These facts lead to a few troubling questions, like how earthquake-resistant are the army bases in the north? Will the Israel Defense Forces be capable of preparing to defend the northern border when an earthquake takes place? Is there a plan for an air defense umbrella over Israel as soon as the earthquake hits? How protected are the nuclear reactors, the Israel Institute for Biological Research and other such facilities?
It is not by chance that I am focusing on institutions of public interest. There is no feasible financial way to protect the thousands of apartment buildings constructed before 1980, but it is possible - and necessary - to either protect the public buildings known to be at risk or tear them down and build others in their place.
There should be a clear procedure for what to do during an earthquake, so that everyone knows who's responsible for what. The only way that will happen is if we deal with mass-casualty disasters not just when they occur, but also between one disaster and the next.
The Knesset recently came up with a pretty good way of doing that, in the form of a supervisory task force monitoring the Tal Law, headed by MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ). (Full disclosure: I assist the task force, as an expert consultant. )
This task force is quite effective because all the people involved know that once every few months, they will have to report to the Knesset what they did and didn't do.
It is precisely this kind of task force that needs to be set up to help Israel prepare for mass-casualty disasters. Some, but not all, of its meetings should be open to journalists, and at least once a year such a panel should submit a report detailing Israel's disaster preparedness.
A task force like this could help minimize the damage a disaster like an earthquake would cause - saving the lives of hundreds or thousands of people and making it one of the most important committees in Israel's history.
Even if its contribution is less extensive, it can still put all the relevant material together for an inquiry committee after the fact. It would also be worthwhile if the task force were to spend a bit of time here and there on the condition of a particular building that has already sustained earthquake damage: the Knesset itself.
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