Expert: 'When' not 'if' large Mid-East quake due

Experts doubt Mideast construction can withstand even a moderate quake.

July 16, 2012 18:50
3 minute read.
Aftermath of earthquake [file]

Aftermath of earthquake [file] 390. (photo credit: Thinkstock)

If you live in the Middle East, now might be a good time to buy earthquake insurance. Seismologists say the Middle East is due for a large earthquake that could leave tens of thousands dead and destroy hundreds of thousands of homes.

“We know from historical records that at least twice in the last millennium along the entire fault line form the Red Sea up to Turkey there were a major series of earthquakes in the 3rd to 6th century and then again between the 11th and 13th century,” Ata Elias, an assistant professor of geology at the American University of Beirut told The Media Line. “Apparently the faults in the area have a cycle of 8–10 centuries, so we’re due for another one.”

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Seismologists in Israel agree that a major earthquake is only a matter of time.

“It can happen in the middle of our conversation or in another ten years,” Ephraim Laor, a disaster manager told The Media Line. “There is always a lot of activity in this area.”

Both agree that there has been an increase in activity in the eastern Mediterranean, with almost daily earthquakes in Crete, Greece, and Iran. Most of these are relatively mild, between 4 and 5 on the Richter scale, but a larger earthquake is also likely at some point.

Elias compares the potential damage to Haiti, where 250,000 people were killed by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010. In Lebanon, he says, there is almost no preparedness for a major earthquake.

“There have been some private initiatives to reinforce schools or prepare evacuation plans,” he says. “But far more needs to be done.”

Israeli seismologist Laor says that in Israel, new fault lines have been discovered in heavily populated areas. He says Israel is not prepared for an earthquake, either.

“You can’t even dream of what a big earthquake would be like here,” he said. “Everybody should have to take a 24-hour survival course that explains what to do in the case of an earthquake.”

In Haiti in 2010, 38,000 children were killed even though the earthquake hit in the afternoon, when most children had already finished studying for the day. He says that Israeli estimates are that a similar size earthquake could leave between 7000 and 16,000 dead; 90,000 wounded; and up to 300,000 buildings collapsed or damaged.

In 1995, there was an earthquake reading 7.2 on the Richter scale in the Sinai desert.

“If that earthquake had been in a more populated area, there could have been tens of thousands killed.

He also warns of the danger of a tsunami, similar to the 2004 disaster in the Indian Ocean that left 230,000 people dead.

In many areas of the Middle East, homes are built very closely together, often on sandy soil or clay, rather than on solid rock.

The cost of constructing new buildings in accordance with earthquake codes adds an estimated three to five percent to the total price tag. Making existing buildings safe is very expensive and governments do not seem to want to invest these sums of money.

Ata Elias in Beirut says that politicians in the Middle East seem too preoccupied with day-to-day issues rather than with preparing for an earthquake.

“Because of the political situation here, the politicians are all flooded by problems so they don’t want to think about anything else,” he said. “We also can’t predict exactly when it will happen. We say it can be in a couple of days, or five or ten years. For scientists this is soon, but politicians work on another time scale.”

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