Readying the Home Front for an Earthquake

The government held a special discussion last week, in which it considered the state of preparation among the various bodies in case of an earthquake, and the degree of coordination between them.

Pity Israeli geologists. During the past two weeks, they have tried to arouse public interest in the 80th anniversary of the last destructive earthquake that took place in Israel, and in the lessons to be learned from it. But any willingness there was on the part of the media to discuss the subject was overwhelmed by its coverage of the one-year anniversary of the Second Lebanon War and the release of a report on the home front by the state comptroller.

There is a close connection between the two events, and perhaps this connection will help increase the awareness of Israeli decision makers of the need for an urgent increase in preparedness for the land's next major earthquake. It will definitely take place - the only question is when.

The war exposed the system's inability to contend with extensive civil distress. As the state comptroller's report demonstrates, there was also a failure to prepare for incidents of leakage of hazardous materials, which fortunately did not occur.

A major earthquake will cause widespread destruction of houses and will endanger many facilities where hazardous materials are kept. One of the assessments on this issue was published last week by geologist Dr. Ron Avni of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Avni studied the earthquake that took place in 1927 in the northern Dead Sea region, which led to the deaths of nearly 300 people, a very high number considering that the the country was then sparsely populated and had almost no high-rise buildings. Statistically, the Land of Israel has a history of a destructive earthquake once every 80 to 100 years, which means, Avni notes, that there's a very high probability that some time in the next two decades there will be an earthquake.

According to a simulation he conducted, an earthquake of an intensity similar to the quake of 1927 would affect 17 percent of the buildings in Jerusalem that were built before the state's establishment, and the collapse of 5 percent of them. About 11 percent of the buildings of mediocre quality (most of the residential buildings constructed up to the end of the 1970s) could be expected to be damaged, and in fully half of them broad cracks would be formed in the walls. In Tel Aviv, 5 percent of the buildings of mediocre quality will be damaged. This means that in the two cities thousands of houses would be affected, with damage ranging from slight to total collapse.

The government held a special discussion last week, in which it considered the state of preparation among the various bodies in case of an earthquake, and the degree of coordination between them.

Israel has a genuine difficulty in raising the budgetary resources that have been at the disposal of countries such as Japan and the United States, and which served to make all the major infrastructures of those countries and many buildings more earthquake-proof. There are, however, still many things that can be done to limit damage, and to prepare for dealing with the results of such damage.

The first, urgently required step is the reinforcement of a large number of infrastructures, and public buildings, such as hospitals and educational institutions, where many people congregate. The government can encourage private reinforcement of buildings by means of economic and legal incentives, once it has approved a master plan. In particularly dangerous areas, buildings can be reinforced with government assistance, without the state coffers collapsing.

It is also possible to develop an early-warning system to prevent the collapse of energy infrastructures and enable evacuation, between the occurrence of the earthquake at its epicenter and the time the waves of destruction reach areas like the coastal plain. Plants that store hazardous materials can be required to install protective means against earthquakes.

All these steps and many others require budgets and precise planning, but above all, the attention of an interministerial body with appropriate resources and powers, one that is constantly preoccupied with the issue and prepared to build a multilayered system of rescue and protection.