Japan earthquake fire 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Yomiuri Yomiuri)
As bad as events may seem in Japan in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake and
tsunami that has killed untold thousands and caused critical failures at nuclear
power plants, Prof. Avi Kirschenbaum, a disaster studies expert at the Technion
– Israel Institute of Technology, thinks it could have been much
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If stringent building codes had not been enforced by authorities
on the quakeprone island, then the death toll could have been even
“Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do when they fall,” he
said. “The tsunami is probably a lot more dangerous than the earthquakes,
especially in Japan, where building codes have been in place. You saw that big
buildings did not fall during the earthquake, but you can’t build a wall along
the entire sea.”
Kirschenbaum currently heads BEMOSA, a European
Union-funded research project aimed at improving security in airports, lectures
about disaster preparedness at the University in Haifa and has written several
books on the subject. He said Japanese authorities’ preparedness mitigated the
effects of the disaster, but had less flattering words, however, for their
Asked if Israel were ready to deal with a major
earthquake, Kirschenbaum gave an unequivocal answer.
“I can tell you very
clearly, we’re not,” he said. “The first things which needs to be improved are
the building codes – and the government understands that,” he said.
the incentives to upgrade buildings by offering residents to build another floor
and, in the process, strengthen their foundations are not
Kirschenbaum said that in the event of a seven or eight
magnitude earthquake, buildings built prior to the 1990s would be at great
“During the 1980s, there was a weak California building code but
that disappeared during the 1990s,” he said.
The last relatively big
earthquake in Israel took place in 2008 when a 5.3 magnitude shake rocked the
region. No fatalities or major damages were reported at the
However, in the 19th century, a major quake struck the region,
reducing the northern cities of Tiberias and Safed to rubble.
If a seven
or eight quake were to impact Israel, Kirschenabum reckons, it could cause more
damage and result in more loss of life than any war Israel has ever
“The chemical plants in the Haifa area, which are on a rift
coming down from Lebanon, will probably blow up,” Kirschenbaum said. “It would
be as if Hezbollah rained down on them all these rockets and it would simply
blow up.” The 68-year-old academic, who was born in the US and immigrated to
Israel 40 years ago, said the Israeli government was also neglecting the
psychological aspect of dealing with disasters.
“One of the things they
are not preparing is the people,” he said. “In Japan, they do it on the
community level. The basis for our survival in Israel is our families and
communities and then the municipality.
All disasters in Israel are local
and in Israel, we have a robust system of communication which we have to rely
on, and with the Japanese, it’s the same way.”