Spate of Earthquakes Leaves Tiberias Feeling Vulnerable

Historic city has thousands of homes without adequate protection as gov’t programs fail to address the problem

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The damage caused by the earthquake in Tiberias
The damage caused by the earthquake in TiberiasCredit: Gil Eliyahu

A spate of 11 small earthquakes in northern Israel over the past week have awakened concerns about the risks faced by Tiberias, the historic resort town whose origins go back to ancient Rome.

>> Earthquakes in Israel: Tenth Tremor in a Week Shakes North

Home to 42,000 people, the city was leveled by a tremor in 1837 and was struck again by a quake in 1927 that measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, which shook the region and killed hundreds of people. Historically, earthquakes are known to have occurred in the city in the years 30, 33, 115, 306, 363, 419, 447, 631-32, 1033, 1182, 1202, 1546 and 1759.

The most recent earthquakes have been minor affairs, with the latest on Monday morning measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale. Still, it was the strongest of the minor earthquakes that have been shaking the area around the Sea of Galilee for several days.

“Once every 100 years there’s a big earthquake and it’s clear Tiberias will have one, the only question is when,” Mayor Yossi Ben-David, told TheMarker.

Israel has implemented the Tama 38 program, whose goal is to encourage building owners to reinforce structures against earthquakes. Contractors get financial incentives to upgrade buildings by getting building rights to add a floor of apartments that they can sell.

However, Tama 38 has not been exploited nearly as much in Israel’s Galilee and Negev regions because housing is not in such short supply and the returns for using the program are minimal. Tiberias is a relatively poor city that ranks only a four on the government’s socio-economic index that ranges from one to 10.

Yet, Tiberias is a city at especially high risk: It sits at the northern end of the Jordan Valley, which constitutes a stretch of the earthquake-prone Syrian-African Rift.

“The fact there is a nationwide program to strengthen buildings against earthquakes, which has been implemented in the country’s center, but it can’t be done in Tiberias or any of the settlements on the Syrian-African Rift, like Safed and Beit Shean, demonstrates that Tama 38 is an anti-social program,” said Ben-David.

“The government should draw a billion shekels ($280 million) from its pockets and protect the buildings here, or we could face damages in the billions of shekels,” the mayor said.

Tiberias has been the site of feverish building activity during the property boom of recent years, but much of the city’s older sections are neglected. A surveyed conducted by the city and the Interior Ministry, which TheMarker has obtained, shows that no fewer than 2,200 buildings in the city have been designated as at risk.

Half of those structures were built before 1974, when building codes were looser, and are considered high risk. Of those, structures containing several apartments are regarded as especially high risk, most of them four-story simple buildings erected in the 1950s on pillars instead of foundations. Even buildings constructed between 1974 and 1981, while considered low risk, don’t meet current earthquake standards. Multi-family units constructed in the 1990s that do meet them are deemed dangerous due to topography, according to the survey.

Moti Lavie, Tiberias’ chief architect, said several Tama 38 applications have been filed in the city over the last two years, but economic considerations make them few and far between. Since 2014, a program run with the Housing and Construction Ministry has reinforced 98 Tiberias buildings with 600 apartments at a cost of 100 million shekels. Another program with the Education Ministry has reinforced a third of the city’s 18 schools.

The earthquakes of the past week have done damage mainly in neighborhoods built in the 1980s and 90s on the slopes coming down to the Kinneret. But other areas, like the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood and Shikkun Gimmel, have older, vulnerable homes. Many families live in public housing. After the latest tremors, 12 buildings have been designated as needing immediate care.

Rami Bardugo, the head of engineering at public housing company Amidar, said the company faces serious obstacles in dealing with earthquake-proofing its buildings, among other things because it often owns individual apartments, not entire structures.

“The buildings damaged by the earthquakes are old buildings that sit on sloping land, some above underground aquifers without proper foundations, which makes them more vulnerable to vibration,” he said. “Many of the residents fear being moved out during renovations, despite the risks involved in remaining in the buildings.”

Residents say they have no choice for financial reasons.

“Anyone who could sell his house and leave for new and safer housing did so already,” said Eliyahu, a Tiberias resident who asked not to use his family name. “Those who live here today are low-income families with lots of children, who have no other choice. The government should help them.”

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