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Be Forewarned: In Israel, Earthquakes Are Your Responsibility

Expectations that the government will reinforce homes instead of their owners paying are an illusion. The state won’t even provide any serious subsidies to prepare for the soon-to-come Big One.

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Nepalese rescueרד observe damaged buildings following an earthquake in Kathmandu on April 26, 2015. How will buildings in Israel fair if a major quake was to hit?
Nepalese rescueרד observe damaged buildings following an earthquake in Kathmandu on April 26, 2015. How will buildings in Israel fair if a major quake was to hit?Credit: AFP
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Nepal had not suffered a major earthquake for 80 years, until the earth shook Saturday morning at a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter scale. The number of victims of the serious quake, which destroyed entire towns, is well over 5,000, and may reach twice that number. Estimates of the financial damage are in the range of tens of percent of the poor country’s entire annual GDP.

The earth has not shaken significantly in Israel either for the last 90 years. The last major earthquake was recorded here in 1927, but as in Nepal, Israelis too should fear a major quake sometime in the near or not-so-distant future.

How severe an earthquake should be expected here in Israel? The scenario the government is planning for forecasts the collapse of 30,000 buildings, 7,000 dead and 170,000 left without shelter. This is scary, but this impression is also deceptive: This reference scenario is the one the government has decided to prepare for, even though it is completely clear that such a scenario is extremely unlikely to occur.

The plan is based on the history of such earthquakes in Israel – as far as is known, earthquakes as severe as the one in Nepal have not occurred in Israel in recent history – and estimates are that Israel is exposed to quakes of 7.5 on the base-10 logarithmic Richter scale, which implies a different severity of damage.

The government’s plans require preparedness to the 95th percentile – in other words, the government expects a 95% chance the actual damage will be lower. Only in 5% of the cases would Israel face greater damage than the government scenario that it set as its preparedness goal.

Just to show how conservative these estimates are, the Israeli building standard for withstanding earthquakes was set according to the 90th percentile – which means buildings are supposed to withstand 90% of all possible earthquakes, so the government’s action plan is actually more conservative than the building codes. And these standards are already considered to be conservative – equivalent to those in California, which has much greater exposure to large earthquakes than Israel.

140 million shekels a year to reinforce public buildings

These complex statistical calculations are meant to be just the starting point for preparedness for an earthquake: It is impossible to prepare for any possible strength of a temblor, and of course the government does not want to do so either. Preparing for a level of earthquake that has not occurred in the past 10,000 years would require Israel to dedicate all its resources to the project – and that is not very logical. In any case, the possibility of being hurt in a traffic accident is tens of times higher than the chance of being injured in an earthquake, and no one is demanding to stop all traffic on the roads.

A better example is that of missiles: The chances that a building in Israel will collapse because it was hit by a missile is many times greater than the chance it will collapse because of an earthquake, but there are still 1.5 million homes in Israel that lack a protected room or shelter, and their owners are in no hurry to carry out such a renovation.

That is why the government is preparing for a 95th-percentile earthquake, and seven years ago put in place a national plan for reinforcing public structures in regions prone to earthquakes, mostly schools and hospitals. The government has allocated 140 million shekels ($35 million) a year for 25 years for this project; and after seven years only two hospitals and about 10 schools have had their buildings strengthened. This is a very slow pace, but as opposed to the standard complaint it is not the budget that is the limiting factor for the renovations.

In reality, most of the budget allocated to protecting public buildings has not been used because of large numbers of other obstacles. For example, it turned out that Israeli engineers know very well how to construct a new building that will withstand an earthquake, but had no idea how to renovate an existing structure to do so.

After a few years of gaining engineering knowledge came the next set of barriers, those of implementation. The renovation of an operating hospital is a very complex project. Even the reinforcement of a school turned out to be complicated, especially as parents’ objections came on top of the engineering problems. The parents simply refused to let their children attend a school that is also a building site.

Despite the slow pace of the work so far, the accumulated experience is expected to help speed things up in the next few years. In addition, as a result of the missile threat and the Home Front Command’s experience from recent fighting, the government agencies that deal with emergency situations and preparedness have improved drastically in the past few years. The rescue services, treatment of casualties, help for the homeless and even mass burial are now all areas that Israel is considered to be relatively prepared for, compared to other developed nations.

Incorrect assessment of the risk?

The real problem in earthquake preparation is not in public buildings, but private homes – the 800,000 such units built in Israel before 1980 that do not meet today’s standards for earthquakes. In addition, very few of these same 800,000 units have proper protection against missiles, either.

Israel has had a policy over the past decade to deal with these issues, in which it provides incentives to private citizens to prepare their buildings for an earthquake – it is known as National Master Plan 38 (or by its Hebrew acronym of Tama 38). The plan includes various easements on construction limitations and allows adding on space to homes – if the owners prepare them for an earthquake and/or build a protected space against rocket attacks. Similar benefits apply to entire apartment buildings, some of which are demolished and completely rebuilt meeting the most up-to-date codes.

The problem is that this solution has not caught on, and so far only a few thousand units in the entire country have been upgraded, out of the some 800,000 that need it.

Most of the projects for such reinforcement have been carried out in the most expensive cities in the center of the country, since Tama 38 is not economically worthwhile in those places that need it most – in the periphery, especially the poorer towns along the Jordan Valley (part of the Syrian-African Rift Valley).

The problem is not unique to Israel, and the other proposed solution is similar to that faced by Japan, New Zealand and in California. They have struggled with how to make private homeowners reinforce their homes against earthquakes. The solution they have found is a combination of carrot and stick: Financial incentives (subsidized loans, grants, discounts on property taxes, allowing additional construction that is not taxed) mixed with a firm demand that owners of homes at risk do the work – with a clear threat of sanctions if they do not. These sanctions can include fines and restrictions on the title, but can also include placing a lien on the home, or even demolition. Experience has shown that financial incentives do not work, but what has worked is the threat of sanctions – and this in places where the threat of earthquakes is much greater than in Israel, such as in California.

This is where the answers to the question of what we do next split off: One position claims that the government must take responsibility and pay for the rebuilding and strengthening the private property of Israeli citizens, especially in poorer areas and the periphery. The last act of Gilad Erdan as Home Front Minister before the ministry was dismantled was to present the recommendations of the inter-ministerial committee that recommended that the state pays for such work in the periphery at an estimated cost of 3 billion to 7 billion shekels over a decade. It is superfluous to note that no budget was found for this recommendation.

Instead, the Housing Ministry started in 2014 a small project using part of the urban renewal budget, some 100 million shekels a year, for subsidizing Tama 38 in neighborhoods to be improved. The ministry provides subsidies of some 20,000 to 100,000 shekels per housing unit, based on the seismic risk of the community and its socioeconomic level, in order to allow residents to band together and improve their buildings. The first year of the project was considered a success, and over 1,000 apartments received the subsidies. At this slow pace, the government has started funding the reinforcement of privately owned homes in poor neighborhoods in the center and periphery.

In any case, the limited help given to the periphery is not relevant for the expensive homes in the center of the country – those that could be protected and strengthened for about 80,000 to 100,000 shekels per apartment and renovated as well for that amount, along with benefitting from additional space in the building and the apartment. You could have thought that Israelis, especially in light of the real threat of a missile attack, would jump at the chance to implement Tama 38, which has significant financial benefits too.

The failure of Tama 38 shows that preparing homes for an earthquake is not very high on the list of priorities of Israelis, possibly because of an inaccurate assessment of the risk on their part. That is why there has been a vigorous debate inside the government whether to adopt the step taken in California, and require homeowners in the center of the country to reinforce their buildings. In the meantime, the Justice Ministry objects, calling it a violation of property rights, and is trying to make only a minimal renovation mandatory – protection from missiles and rockets, but not from earthquakes.

The debate is still undecided, but it is clear that any expectation that the government will undertake such construction in place of its citizens, or provide substantial grants to them to subsidize such work, is just a fantasy. If citizens don’t want to protect themselves, says the government, then that is their responsibility.

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