Bracing for the ‘big one’

It can happen any day, and if it is of a particularly destructive magnitude and lethally nearby, no part of the country would be safe.

February 27, 2011 05:24
3 minute read.
Rescue workers climb onto collapsed building

New Zealand earthquake 5 GALLERY 465. (photo credit: AP Photo/New Zealand Herald, Mark Mitchell)

Straddling as we do a major geological fault-line – the Afro-Syrian rift – where two restless tectonic plates rub against each other, it’s only natural that following tragedies such as New Zealand’s, we focus yet again on our own acute vulnerability.

The Dead Sea and Jordan Valley are the physical manifestations of the aforementioned rift in our country. Geologists caution us that an above-7-on-the-Richter-Scale quake is probable sometime within the next 50 years. It can happen any day, and if it is of a particularly destructive magnitude and lethally nearby, no part of the country would be safe.

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Committees aplenty have been set up and have compiled expert recommendations on shoring up existing structures and preparing for a disaster that could come again; the quake we experienced in 1927, bad as it was, wasn’t the “big-one.” Experts warn that we’re due to experience a once-in-a-millennium mega-event soon. The last one of that magnitude occurred in 1033. We’re infinitely more densely populated nowadays, and hence incomparably more at risk.

What all the talk has produced thus far are scare-mongering commercials geared to induce the citizenry to reinforce existing buildings constructed before 1980, when more stringent codes went into effect (though nobody has yet examined how scrupulously those codes were actually implemented).

There’s a business aspect to all this. A state-sponsored program known by the Hebrew acronym TAMA-38 proposes to buttress and expand older apartment houses at no cost to the residents, while the contractors who do the job are compensated by being granted the right to construct extra floors and sell off the new flats. There’s considerable enticement here to homeowners – besides increased seismic safety, they are offered upgrades and substantial renovations, seemingly for free.

Superficially, at least, this looks like a win-win scheme – a dream formula where everyone benefits and the public coffers aren’t emptied. So why hasn’t the program taken off? Why has there been no mass rush to reap the advantages it ostensibly offers?

Red tape is part of the problem. Not all municipalities are eager to issue permits, as the potential for overcrowding and deterioration in urban quality of life is exacerbated. The natural conservatism of inhabitants plays a role as well.

Then there’s the particularly vexing reality of incentive. The greatest hazards exist for those towns closest to the rift. Ironically, however, locations like Beit She’an aren’t prime real estate. Their underprivileged residents haven’t the wherewithal to finance their own projects, while contractors are unlikely to invest in locations where sales of new flats won’t net much.

THE GIST of pro-and-con argumentation featured in a recent exchange between Tel-Aviv Mayor Ron Hulda’i and the head of the National Earthquake Preparedness Committee, Dr. Avi Shapira.

Shapira complained that Tel Aviv was dragging its feet on approving TAMA-38 projects. Huldai fired back that TAMA’s PR campaign “was born in sin. It terrifies the public without offering true solutions... Does TAMA help those in the greatest-risk areas, like Hatzor, Kiryat Shmona and Beit She’an, where economic conditions make it unfeasible? What can frightened citizens do?... TAMA-38 is make-believe. It creates planning ambiguities, promotes impossible expectations and in its five years has actually accomplished very little. Furthermore, there is no certainty that it sufficiently strengthens buildings... It is better to tell the public the truth, even if it is unpleasant.”

Huldai’s doubts are echoed by Prof. David Yankelevsky of the Technion Civil Engineering Faculty, who charges that “TAMA-38 is no plan. It provides no guidelines on how to quakeproof buildings, on which buildings should be reinforced, etc.”

We don’t presume to judge. This is far over the heads of non-professionals. We’re nonetheless perturbed by the doubts voiced. Most folks cannot assess the sturdiness of their homes. Many are loath to rely on the opinions of contractors with vested interests.

What is needed urgently is a disinterested, broad and universally available public framework that would objectively survey all pre-1980 buildings and suggest to residents what can plausibly be done to quakeproof them.

Obviously, merely dispensing practical advice costs money – to say nothing of later retrofitting old structures. But it’s better than any alternative.

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