Is Israel ready for a different kind of natural disaster?

7,000 fatalities are expected from a major earthquake.

November 28, 2016 08:59

YOAV SASSON stands in front of rubble from a April 2015 earthquake in Nepal where he served as part of the IDF Home Front aid team.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

It struck at 11:56 a.m. Nepal Standard Time on April, 25, 2015. The earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 rocked western Nepal, not far from Kathmandu, killing almost 9,000 people and injuring about 25,000 others. It destroyed or damaged 500,000 homes.

The international community rushed to help, and Israel sent the second-largest aid team to the devastated country, with more than 250 doctors and rescue personnel operating a field hospital of 60 beds.

For years, Israel has focused on security-related emergencies such as war, and the population has become almost used to those scenarios. So while Israel’s emergency medical response team has recently been recognized by the United Nations as the “No. 1 in the world,” just how prepared is the country when it comes to a natural disaster such as wildfires or an earthquake on its own soil?

Over the past six days wildfires have destroyed more than 4,000 hectares (about 9,900 acres), 30% more than the fires that ravaged Mount Carmel in 2010, killing 44 people. But Israel seems to have learned many lessons from that deadly fire, with the Fire and Rescue Authority undergoing a complete overhaul, adding manpower, dozens of newer firefighting trucks and other advanced equipment, and the establishment of a squadron of 14 firefighting planes with more than 1,000 tons of fire retardant.

Israel may have been better prepared for wildfires, but what about an earthquake? One day before the wildfires began raging across the country, two soldiers who took part in Israel’s aid team to Nepal, Ayelet Zion and Yoav Sasson, spoke to The Jerusalem Post about their time in the Himalayan country and whether Israel is prepared for the “big one” to strike.

A soldier in the IDF Home Front Command, Sasson was 21 when he was sent to Nepal. “It was a life-changing event,” he recounted. “When I got there I was in shock. Entire cities were destroyed, injured people were lying on the ground, dying or dead people... You can never forget the smell.”

But here in Israel, we are much better prepared, Sasson said, pointing to the incident in Tel Aviv where a parking lot collapsed on September 5, killing four.

“We were in Tel Aviv within minutes,” he said, stressing that “the country is investing a lot of money” in emergency preparedness. “We are getting new equipment; we are training daily; and we are better prepared.”

Zion, who spent 28 days in Nepal, agreed, saying that within minutes there were more rescuers in Tel Aviv then such a “small event” called for. “The Home Front Command invests a lot in the safety of civilians,” she said, giving the example of her mother, who is the commander of a civilian rescue unit. This unit can respond to an event and provide aid until emergency services arrive, but nonetheless, she says, “You always have to be prepared.”

And the Home Front Command is preparing. There are yearly nationwide drills for schoolchildren to prepare for emergencies, Lt.-Col. Sarit Guerscovitz, the command’s head of public guidance and information, said. And since the first few hours of a disaster are key, the command has begun a project to teach teenagers how to administer first aid to themselves and others until emergency services arrive.

The Syrian-African fault line runs along the border between Israel and Jordan. It is part of the Great Rift Valley, encompassing the area from northern Syria to Mozambique. And while earthquakes in the region tend to be small – the most recent one on November 19 measuring 3.6 on the Richter scale – it is not immune to larger, deadlier quakes.

On January 1, 1837, a magnitude 6.5 quake, often called the Safed earthquake, struck the Galilee, killing an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people. The last major earthquake to strike Israel was in 1927, measuring 6.2 and with its epicenter in the northern Dead Sea. It killed 500 people and injured an additional 700.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Meir Elran, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, said: “If there is an earthquake in the magnitude of 6.7, similar to the one that happened here in 1927, we expect thousands of fatalities, many thousands injured, and tens of thousands displaced. This is a very severe scenario that is expected to happen. We are definitely not prepared for such an eventuality.”

Another threat concerns the coastal area, and the risk of a devastating tsunami. On average, a significant tsunami hits the Mediterranean Sea every 100 years, and Israel’s coastline suffers one on average every 250 years.

Following a 2012 Home Front Command exercise to raise the preparedness of citizens as well as security and emergency services for dealing with natural disasters, then-OC Maj.-Gen. Eyal Eizenberg said that “an earthquake in Israel is more dangerous than war,” as it would result in “damage to life and property on a much more significant scale.”

“Experts are talking about a scenario every century,” Elran told the Post, giving Israel 10 to 15 years until the next major earthquake. “Of course it can happen tomorrow, or it can happen in another 15 years. This is something that you can’t really predict, but due to the tectonic disposition of the country, experts are pretty certain that such a disruption might well happen.”

The government has begun funding earthquake preparedness projects and the Home Front Command recently released a software application for earthquake preparedness, but according to a recent report by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s Home Front Readiness Subcommittee, if Israel were to be struck by a 7.5 magnitude quake, an estimated 7,000 people would be killed, another 8,600 injured and 377,000 left homeless. In addition, the country could face damages of up to NIS 200 billion.

In addition to buildings being destroyed, the damage to critical infrastructures such as electricity, water and communication is expected to be great. According to the National Emergency Authority, there are 80,000 buildings, including schools and hospitals, over three stories high that were built before 1980, meaning they were not constructed to meet current standards. And only 2,700 of those buildings have received approval for the government’s Tama 38 reconstruction program.

But according to a study conducted by the Science Ministry shortly after the earthquake in Nepal, the Tama program does not come close to what the country needs. “In terms of damage to buildings and infrastructure and the number of displaced, it would be an unprecedented disaster for Israel in which 2% of the population in one fell swoop would lose their homes,” reads the report, led by Prof. Eran Feitelson of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s geography department.

If a major earthquake were to strike Israel, Feitselson wrote, “from the point of view of causalities, the scale would be more than three times that of the Yom Kippur War occurring all at once, in the space of a few minutes.” •

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