Fear of Trembling

The Lod-based Geophysical Institute of Israel (GII), which monitors earthquakes, doesn't have a budget for a night shift, and if an earthquake occurs at night, there won't be anyone to supply the most basic information.

One of the most frequently heard complaints about Israel's governments is that they take action only after disasters have already occurred, but are not deployed to deal with them beforehand. However, this isn't exactly true, because in almost every instance after a disaster, or after concrete warnings of a looming disaster, the Israeli establishment returns to its usual impotence and inaction. An excellent case in point is the earthquake that struck the country last week.

Israel is situated in a region that is characterized by constant seismic activity, a region in which powerful earthquakes have occurred for thousands of years, including the past 100 years. A recent reminder of the vast damage liable to be caused by earthquakes was provided in the major quake in Turkey five years ago, in which Israelis also died.

However, none of these disasters had much of an impact here, and last Wednesday's earthquake found the authorities unprepared. A long list of public structures and homes that were not built according to the appropriate standards could be cited, or the unpreparedness of the emergency system when it will be called upon to treat a large number of casualties. However, two examples will serve to illustrate the problem. The Lod-based Geophysical Institute of Israel (GII), which monitors earthquakes, doesn't have a budget for a night shift, and if an earthquake occurs at night, there won't be anyone to supply the most basic information. The second example is that the bodies that deal with earthquake damages didn't know who the overall coordinator is - the body in charge of issuing the guidelines of action.

It's commonly said about earthquakes that it's impossible to prevent them, but possible to be ready for them. Another commonplace is that earthquakes don't cause damage - it's poorly built structures that cause damage. It follows that the primary goals of deployment are to reinforce structures and prepare for dealing with a mass disaster. The system should be capable of dealing with serious earthquakes, such as occurred in recent years in India, Turkey and Iran, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people.

The Israeli government, rattled by the consequences of the earthquake in Turkey, took a first step in this direction and established a professional steering committee to deploy for earthquakes. The committee was to deal with all aspects of the deployment, from setting standards and drawing up master plans that would make it possible to reinforce structures and build new ones based on appropriate criteria, to preparing a large-scale emergency system. The committee did, in fact, prepare plans and recommendations, but only a few of them have been implemented, while the budgets that were allocated to the committee, as well as to various related bodies, were slashed by dozens of percent. Last year, after the committee chairman, Yaakov Heichal, completed his tenure, no new chairman was appointed for a full six months.

The decisive question is what will now induce the politicians to divert resources systematically to deployment in the face of possible future earthquakes; the answer is, that nothing will induce them to take such action. It's clear that within a few days the whole matter will be forgotten.

What remains, then, is to keep warning and to remember what Yaakov Heichal said last week about the need to do a few things very soon. One of them is to authorize, on a final basis, the Home Front Command plan that defines exactly "who is responsible for what," as Heichal put it, after an earthquake.

Heichal added that the factories and other facilities that contain hazardous materials must be checked to ensure that last week's quake didn't damage them. In addition, the plan for initial post-earthquake rehabilitation, which is under the responsibility of Melah, the emergency authority, must be completed. This involves the supply of food, medicines and temporary lodgings for people who are hurt or have no place to live after an earthquake. The Planning and Construction Law must be enforced, while ensuring, by means of monitoring and control, that new buildings meet the standards for withstanding earthquakes. The most vital need is to reinforce old buildings. This can be done by means of economic incentives in residential areas where the level of income is relatively high, or by means of government funding in poorer regions. This money will have the clear-cut aim of saving lives in the earthquake that will occur, even if it's not clear when.