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Tens of thousands of buildings in Israel that were built before 1990 are not protected against serious earthquakes. This number constitutes approximately 80 percent of the buildings constructed before that time, the Association of Engineers, Architects and Graduates of the Technological Sciences in Israel said yesterday.

The chairman of the association, Dr. Yoav Sarna, said the buildings constructed less than a decade ago could withstand an earthquake because they had been built according to new, updated standards and include sealed rooms, which contribute to building stability.

Sarna said older buildings could be stabilized by closing off the ground floor and adding sealed rooms.

Yesterday's earthquake, which measured 5.1 on the Richter scale, was not the least bit surprising, Sarna said. "We're located in a seismic region that's expected to absorb repeated and stronger earthquakes. Even though the earthquake that was felt [yesterday] was relatively weak, this is a reminder that we're living in a place destined for calamity and repeated earthquakes with many casualties. Most of the damages and casualties are expected to be in the old buildings that have not been built for stability in the face of earthquakes."

The government, the Home Front Command and the local authorities are not prepared to take care of the effects of a serious earthquake, Sarna added, noting that the Home Front Command was prepared to treat only a limited amount of casualties and destruction.

Samuel Olpiner, president off the Association of Contractors and Builders in Israel, said Israel was not treating the topic of earthquakes with the urgency it deserved.

He said the association had given the Knesset's Heichal Committee on earthquake preparedness a plan to bolster existing buildings so they would be able to withstand a strong earthquake.

According to the plan, buildings built before 1990 would be strengthened by adding sealed rooms or extra sections, or using concrete to fill in empty spaces on the ground floor.

An Interior Ministry committee had prepared a draft plan for bolstering existing buildings, said Olpiner. But the government acted too slowly, he continued, adding it appeared that the process of approving the plan would take a long time.

The final report of the governmental investigation committee headed by Judge Vardi Zeiler to determine the stability of public buildings in Israel found that strong earthquakes were likely to take place in many areas of the country and could cause widespread damage and casualties.

According to the committee, which was established after the May 2001 collapse of the Versailles wedding hall in Jerusalem, geological fault lines or suspected active fault lines exist in Eilat, in the Haifa region and near Kiryat Shmona.

The report also noted that most of the Israeli population lives on soft ground, where an earthquake is generally stronger than on rocky ground. In addition, many of the buildings in the country, including hospitals, are in danger of collapsing during a strong earthquake, the report found.

About a month ago, the Standards Institution of Israel announced a new standard of earthquake preparedness.

The institute describes various ways of determining the strength of buildings and suggests ways to bolster them.

According to the institute, the standard will allow every municipality, house committee or individual to get an estimate regarding the stability of a particular residence and can also get it bolstered if necessary.

Nonetheless, infrastructure experts said it would be difficult for a non-professional to understand and implement the new standard.