For Sale: Earthquake Safety

Events in Haiti should send a chilling reminder to Israelis that we, too, sit on active faults. And while we will likely weather a large quake with fewer casualties than that impoverished Caribbean nation, we too are dismally unprepared.

Daniel Orenstein
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Daniel Orenstein

The brochures posted at the entrance to my apartment building screamed with slogans sure to resonate now, after Haiti's earthquake: "Attention! If this building was built before the '80s, it probably lacks earthquake-proof standards." And, "We call on you to take responsibility for your children, family and property, and reinforce your home." These were not public service announcements: They were posted by a contractor eager to profit from National Master Plan (NMP) 38 for reinforcing buildings against earthquakes.

Events in Haiti should send a chilling reminder to Israelis that we, too, sit on active faults. And while we will likely weather a large quake with fewer casualties than that impoverished Caribbean nation, we too are dismally unprepared: Approximately 100,000 residential structures - those more than three decades old - may not withstand a Haiti-strength earthquake. This could mean thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in damage.

In recognition of this situation, the government crafted NMP 38, a seemingly elegant plan for reinforcing existing buildings. Passed into law five years ago, NMP 38 was recently renewed for another five.

Essentially, the plan provides tenants with the right to improve and expand their building if they also reinforce it against earthquakes. They can add new units or expand existing ones, subject to the approval of city engineers. They can also add elevators and upgrade facades. The plan also grants exemptions from improvement taxes (levied when a zoning plan raises property values).

Since most ordinary citizens can neither coordinate nor pay for such improvements, private contractors enter the picture, offering to reinforce and improve the structure in return for rights to build more apartments at the site. Theoretically, this is a win-win-win situation: The residents get a stronger building with lots of extras, the contractors profit on the sale of new apartments, and the government successfully utilizes the private sector to fulfill its responsibility to protect its citizens. Everyone profits and the next big quake becomes a little less threatening.

If only it were so simple. Implementation of the plan has proven to be problematic. The first building where this was done, in Tel Aviv's Neot Afeka neighborhood, began to sink during the improvements. Few contractors, it turns out, have the necessary experience for the reinforcement part of the work, according to Danny Merian, chairman of the Israel Engineers Association for Construction and Infrastructure.

Lack of experience is just one reason why fewer than 100 buildings have received the go-ahead to make improvements under the plan over the past five years. Most offers by contractors have been rejected by city engineers.

Despite the sweeteners, lack of profitability has so far prevented many contractors from even submitting proposals. Currently, decision makers at the national and local levels are pressured to maximize and enhance incentives so that contractors can increase their profit. These include increasing the number of floors that can be added to a building, or allowing contractors to exercise building rights on structures other than the one in which earthquake being reinforced.

The focus on profit also means contractors are not showing up to cut deals in poorer neighborhoods in the bigger cities or, for example, in Beit She'an and Safed (two towns close to seismic faults). And it's not surprising that the few contracts that are being signed are primarily for buildings in posh neighborhoods in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. The result is an emerging injustice, in which those lucky enough to be sitting on prime real estate can benefit from NMP 38, while those in less attractive cities and neighborhoods can only sit and wait.

The Association of Contractors and Builders has a solution for this: Let its members reinforce buildings in one place (say, Beit She'an) in return for receiving building rights in another, profitable area. This is an interesting proposal, but, should it be approved, the public must check that the necessary protection is provided, and the new construction done according to zoning and planning laws.

A final problem concerns maintaining quality of life in already dense urban centers. NMP 38 facilitates increases in urban population density, which will exacerbate perennial problems - parking, pressure on infrastructure, maintenance of green spaces, and views from neighboring apartments. The plan is executed at the level of the individual building, where individual apartment owners reap the benefits, but the environmental and social costs of increasing population density are shared by the neighborhood. Individuals reap the benefits, but the public pays the price.

The authors of the plan foresaw such problems, and have given municipal authorities the option of forestalling them. But local planning authorities must be careful to ensure that the job gets done before the next earthquake, without sacrificing quality of life for quick profit. Unfortunately, these authorities often lack the necessary funding and manpower to undertake such important endeavors.

The goal of national policy should be to reinforce all buildings that are not built to standard, starting with those near faults. But there is no silver bullet here. Someone has to pay. In the absence of recognizing and correcting the problematic elements of NMP 38, a lucky few buildings may withstand the next quake - while the fate of others may remind us of Haiti.

Daniel Orenstein is a researcher with the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the Technion and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.

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