'16,000 Israelis could die in quake'

MKs warned that in most likely scenario, 6,000 would be severely injured.

January 27, 2010 06:27
3 minute read.
'16,000 Israelis could die in quake'

Earthquake GEN 224.88. (photo credit: )


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An earthquake similar in scale to the 7.0-magnitude one that struck Haiti on January 12 will strike here, Israel's chief of earthquake preparedness warned MKs on Tuesday.

And if it strikes in the near future, Israel is likely to be caught unprepared, Dr. Avi Shapira, the head of the interministerial steering committee on the issue, told a joint session of the Interior Committee and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee's subcomittee for home front preparedness.

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While experts could not predict the date of the future quake, they do know which areas are most likely to be at its epicenter, Shapira said.

According to the Knesset Research Center, the interministerial steering committee's plans considered the outcome of an earthquake that registered 7.5 on the Richter scale and was centered in the Beit She'an Valley, a seismically active area in the Syrian-African Rift that runs along Israel's eastern border. In that, the most likely large quake scenario, the committee predicted 16,000 dead, 6,000 severely injured, 377,000 displaced, 10,000 buildings destroyed and 20,000 buildings heavily damaged.

Although the steering committee began examining readiness for such a scenario in December 1999, participants in Tuesday's meeting highlighted the fields in which the country was still completely unprepared.

"We must internalize the lesson that what will kill people is not the earthquake itself," Shapiro said. "What kills people are the buildings. Death will occur as a result of building collapse, meaning that it is a man-made tragedy. There is a continued failure to build stable buildings, turning buildings into death traps."

He added that "the world has already proven that buildings can be built that will not completely collapse in earthquakes, and will merely be damaged.

"Building standards are not met because there is insufficient enforcement, and we must act as quickly as possible, at least to strengthen public facilities," warned Shapira.

The Interior Ministry's representative confirmed that the ministry was disappointed by the government plan to reinforce existing buildings.

According to Ya'acov Bar-Lavi of the Mapping Center of Israel, 96,000 residential buildings are at risk of collapsing during a strong earthquake.

The Building Contractors Association presented a position paper to the MKs, in which it warned that 1 million apartments and thousands of public buildings are likely to collapse. Its representative argued that the current government program, known as Plan 38, will not drastically improve Israel's earthquake readiness, as only a few dozen buildings nationwide have been reinforced since it went into effect.

Israel's response to such a disaster is set to be coordinated by the National Emergency Authority, a body that received its mandate in April 2007.

The NEA's representatives at Tuesday's meeting gave an overview of the response that will be offered by the military, and went on to describe local government as the "cornerstone" of the plan, with mayors coordinating immediate aid.

But Sharon Azriel, deputy to the chairman of the Union of Local Authorities, complained that the plans had not been backed up with the budgetary allocations necessary for them to serve as the "cornerstone."

The committee hearing also highlighted the lack of plans for the arrival and coordination of international aid that is likely to come as part of Israel's membership in UN reciprocal-aid agreements.

In addition, complained ZAKA search and rescue organization head Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the solution of mass graves would be inappropriate under Jewish law, but the burial societies can only accommodate 150 bodies each per day - far from what would be necessary under the dire scenario. Instead, Meshi-Zahav suggested, and Interior Committee chairman Avraham Michaeli (Shas) agreed, yeshiva students not integrated in any first-response framework should be taught basic body recovery and preparation skills so they can function as burial society "reserves."

"The State of Israel must find a way to stick its hand into its pocket and find funding for preparedness," said home front readiness subcommittee chairman MK Ze'ev Boim (Kadima). "The State of Israel must establish a national information center that will go to each and every home and teach citizens how to survive.

"On the issue of building reinforcement, we must immediately find a way to enforce the building standards. My subcommittee will examine the necessary changes to Code 38," Boim said.

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