Nepal-scale Earthquake Could Hit Israel - and Country Is Far From Prepared

Government study released last month finds program to reinforce buildings has served areas least vulnerable to a tremor.

Ofer Vaknin

There's no telling when it's coming, or whether it will reach a magnitude of 7.9 and kill upwards of 2,500 people like the weekend earthquake in Nepal has done. But Israel is destined to face a major tremor sometime in the future – and the country’s main program for reinforcing buildings isn’t coming close to ensuring a major disaster.

That was the conclusion of a study conducted by the Science Ministry and released a month ago. The team that wrote the report, which was headed by Prof. Eran Feitelson of Hebrew University's Geography Department, said that at a prospectively bargain price of 1.7 billion shekels ($430 million), Israel could reduce earthquake damage by two thirds.

In the worst-case scenario, according to the inter-ministerial steering committee that ordered up the report, 30,000 buildings in Israel would be destroyed, leaving 7,000 dead and 170,000 homeless.

“From the point of view of causalities, the scale would be more than three times that of the Yom Kippur War occurring all at once, in the space of a few minutes,” said the report. “In terms of damage to buildings and infrastructure and the number of displaced it would be an unprecedented disaster for Israel in which 2% of the population in one fell swoop would lose their homes.”

Israel has about 810,000 housing units built before an earthquake standard was enacted for new construction in the 1980s. Of those, some 70,000 units are estimated to be at high risk to damage during a tremor.

“Residential buildings constructed before 1980, especially those in neighborhoods where structures are three or more stories, are those most vulnerable to damage and destruction during an earthquake,” the report said.

Last big one in 1927

Israel sits astride the Great Rift Valley, a geographic trench that runs approximately 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) from Syria to Africa's Mozambique. Israel’s last major tremor occurred in 1927 and left 130 dead in Jerusalem. On average a destructive earthquake measuring 6 or more on the Richter scale takes place in Israel once every 80 years, according to Rami Hofstetter, director of the seismology division at the Geophysical Institute.

Israelis as a rule have been indifferent to earthquake risk. Almost no one has personally experienced a major tremor since that last one was 87 years ago. Before that, a 19th-century earthquake hit Tiberias and Safed.

“As a rule, the closer a building is to the fault line – in communities like Beit Shean, Tiberias, Kiryat Shmona, Eilat, Jerusalem and Haifa – the risk is the highest,” the Science Ministry said, pointing to about 40,000 housing units among the 70,000 that face the highest risk of all.

The sole solution to addressing the risk Israel has undertaken is renovations made through the so-called National Outline Plan 38 program, known as Tama 38 in Hebrew, is doing little to help the most at-risk communities, the report found.

Tama 38 allows apartment owners to sign contracts with contractors under which the builder undertakes to reinforce the building against earthquakes and make other improvements, in exchange for getting building rights to apartments that he can sell to cover his costs and make a profit.

But, as the report found, Tama 38 projects have almost all been done in the greater Tel Aviv area, where earthquake risk is the lowest but land and real estate values are the highest, making Tama 38 projects more lucrative.

As early as 2006, the government recognized the gaps in the Tama 38 program and a committee headed by the director general of the National Infrastructure Ministry recommended budgeting 20 million shekels annually, over two decades, to strengthen building in Israel’s periphery.

“These recommendations were never implemented, so we have been left with a paradoxical situation in which the sole policy measure taken for private residential structures isn’t relevant for buildings and residents who are in the greatest danger,” said the Science Ministry study.

'Program actually made things worse'

Feitelson argues that Tama 38 has actually made things worse in terms of earthquake preparedness. “Tama has created the illusion that there’s a government plan to strengthen the structures, thus that it is doing something,” he said. “The situation in those places where you really need to strengthen building would probably been better today if she had not Tama 38.”

But Avi Shapira, who heads the steering committee that ordered the report, isn’t so damning of Tama 38, but he does agree that Israel must do something to take care of earthquake risk in areas where real estate values are two low to justify the program.

The Science Minstry report says Israel should be focusing on identifying the buildings most at risk. It proposed a package of policies to be implemented over the next five to 10 years, including laws mandating reinforcing buildings together with incentives for meeting them and penalties for failing to.

Mortgage subsidies should be offered to middle-class families and outright funding for poorer families, it said.

“Basic strengthening of buildings against earthquakes isn’t an expensive process – 40,000 shekels per housing unit. That’s not something a country like Israel can’t do,” said Feitelson. “To finance it, you don’t need to sell building rights.”