Israel not prepared for earthquake scenarios

A day after Israel was rattled by an earthquake, former senior officials in charge of preparedness warned that the country was far from prepared for a large one.

Israel is situated along the Syrian-African fault line, which runs along the border between Israel and Jordan, part of the Great Rift Valley, encompassing the area from northern Syria to Mozambique.

While earthquakes in the region tend to be small, a large earthquake striking the country is only a matter of time.

The last major earthquake to strike the country was in 1927, measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale. It killed 500 people and injured an additional 700. Another large earthquake, on January 1, 1837, measured 6.5 on the Richter scale and struck near Galilee. It killed an estimated 6,000-7,000 people.

The government has been funding earthquake preparedness projects, and the IDF Home Front Command has released an application for earthquake preparedness and has trained over 74,000 students across the country to act as first responders in case of an earthquake, to provide aid until professional rescue service teams arrive.

But Israel is still not prepared for a large earthquake.

 View of damage caused to houses in the city of Tiberias and the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilea, in northern Israel, after earthquakes shook the area, on July 9, 2018. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) View of damage caused to houses in the city of Tiberias and the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilea, in northern Israel, after earthquakes shook the area, on July 9, 2018. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Matan Vilna’i, a retired general who served as deputy military chief of staff and was responsible for overseeing upgrades of the civil defense systems after he established the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA), warned that Israel is not prepared for earthquakes and other constant threats facing it.

“An earthquake will happen, and no one knows when. We need to have a body that will focus 24/7 on preparing the country for emergencies, be it an earthquake, coronavirus or rockets,” he said. “That should be all that they do.”

Vilna’i said that there are many things that need to be carried out by the government, not the IDF, in order to adequately prepare the country for a large earthquake.

“Israel is under constant threat of rocket strikes by its enemies and therefore needs always to be prepared. Earthquakes, like corona, are a threat. And we are not prepared for that or anything else,” he warned.

Vilna’i said that the NEMA needs to be rebuilt completely differently after being destroyed by internal politics.

In July, NEMA director Yoram Laredo told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the organization was “currently undergoing restructuring, both in terms of focusing its mission and roles and in terms of creating a suitable organizational structure.”

According to Laredo, following the 2018 Mizrahi Committee, the Home Front Command was defined as the major operative body responsible for the local authority level and governmental district level, while NEMA was in charge of the strategic level and for guiding the government ministries in overall preparation for emergencies.

But, Laredo said, “the districts that were in NEMA until then, with a certain overlap with the Home Front Command, were dismantled, and NEMA was reduced from 63 employees to 39 and serves as a staff body.”

So while the idea “is good,” Vilna’i said, “today it’s not a serious body. It needs to be rebuilt completely differently.”

Brig.-Gen (res.) Zeev Zuk Ram (Vova), the former head of NEMA, told The Jerusalem Post that while Israel is “ready” in the form of knowledge about where an earthquake might strike and where it might be stronger or weaker, the country is not prepared should one hit.

“We have a good amount of knowledge, but to be on the safe side, we need to change all the information to operational,” he said. “We can’t say that we are prepared operationally. Our preparedness is really bad. Preparedness is not just about strengthening buildings and hospitals. The population has to be prepared for when it happens.”

Though the Home Front Command has held several drills and is considered one of the leading bodies in search and rescue and can be sent to disaster scenes, it will not be able to handle the crisis the country will find itself in after the quakes subside.

A 2016 report by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s Home Front Readiness Subcommittee found that if Israel were to be struck by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, an estimated 7,000 people would be killed, 8,600 injured and 377,000 could expect to be left homeless.  

In addition, the country could face damages of up to NIS 200 billion, with some 28,600 buildings destroyed, 290,000 buildings with light damage, and 170,000 people evacuated from their homes for the long term.

In addition to destroyed buildings, the damage to critical infrastructures such as electricity, water and communication would be great. According to NEMA, there are 80,000 buildings, including schools and hospitals, over three stories high built before 1980, and not constructed according to current standards.

Some buildings are so dilapidated that as many as 80,000 buildings with about 300,000 apartments are in danger of collapsing and must be reconstructed in the coming years to avoid calamity, the Israel Builders Association warned, after a residential building in Holon collapsed without the ground even shaking.

“The people who lived in the building in Holon have still not been rehoused. Think about it. If we are talking about over 10,000 dead and more than 80,000 injured, and many more homeless, is the country ready for that? It really isn’t,” said Ram, who served as deputy chief of staff for national security in charge of home front preparedness.

“We can prevent wars, make normalization agreements with countries and make the Iron Dome, but an earthquake, – you can never know when it will happen,” he said.

According to Ram, who also served as the chairman of the interoffice committee on earthquakes, Israelis who live along the Syrian-African rift are those who need to be ready for the next earthquake, “because it’s not about if it will happen, but when it will happen.”

In August 2020, the Construction and Housing Ministry reported that while the government had allocated NIS 5b. to strengthening buildings for earthquakes, only NIS 7 million had actually been transferred.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned in January that authorities and infrastructure in Israel are not prepared to deal with such an event, and that immediate action was required.

Speaking at a NEMA conference, Gantz said, “The window of opportunity” to prepare for such a large earthquake is closing.

“We don’t need more talks and warnings – we need immediate action. We need NEMA to gather all the different elements. In the past few decades our readiness for earthquakes improved, but still – in Israel today there are some 80,000 housing units in severe danger of collapsing in case of an earthquake,” he said.

Comparing the situation to Israel’s lack of readiness ahead of and during the current pandemic, Gantz said that unlike with corona, where authorities had time to learn about the virus and respond to it, “in an event such as an earthquake, there is no time… hence the preparation should start now.”

IN ADDITION to the threat of a major earthquake, the coastline risks being devastated by possible tsunamis. On average, a significant tsunami hits the Mediterranean every 100 years, and Israel’s coastline suffers one on average every 250 years.

While tsunamis in Israel are not expected to have the power of those that recently devastated coastal areas of Japan and Thailand, in November 2017 the Israeli government began placing tsunami warning signs and evacuation routes in coastal cities.

Israel is part of the Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Tsunami Early Warning and Mitigation System in the Northeastern Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and connected seas, and is provided with essential data on seismic activity in the region.

As part of the system, Israel will have more than 20 minutes to evacuate its population the moment an earthquake happens in Crete or Greece.

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