Witnessing three earthquakes in the 4 to 4.5 range of the Richter scale over the past two months serves as a reminder of what could happen should Israel, positioned along a major fault line running through the Dead Sea Basin, be struck by "the Big One."
While the country has not faced a high-magnitude earthquake since the early 20th century, authorities have warned that one could occur at any time. Being prepared for such an eventuality is vital to saving lives.
"We can't stop an earthquake, it is too powerful," said Dr. Rami Hofstetter, manager of the Seismology Division at the Geophysical Institute of Israel. Instead, he said, "We have to get ready."
One of the most important measures in preparing for an earthquake is to ensure strong buildings and proper building codes. To that end a national steering committee, including Hofstetter and the Geophysical Institute, was formed in 2002 to help prepare the country in several ways for an earthquake. Many different organizations, such as various ministries, police and fire departments, the army's Home Front Command and research institutes, take part in the committee.
"It's been proven in many other places: Any money you invest in
having a better building to withstand a strong earthquake,
you'll have a large benefit," said Hofstetter.
Other ways of preparing are educating the public about taking necessary security measures, teaching about earthquakes in schools, working with other countries to share information and conducting research.
But the most prevalent point spoken about is the necessity of reinforcing buildings.
"We [the committee] prepared a program to prevent the collapse of buildings," said Dr. Efraim Laor, who heads the National Steering Committee for Earthquake Readiness in Israel and is chairman of the Fast Israeli Rescue & Search Team. "There's a national building program to improve the resilience of buildings to earthquakes."
Laor described how more than 400,000 buildings, schools, premises and kindergartens have had buildings on site reinforced, as well as several industrial buildings, many of which handle hazardous materials. Laor added that the committee has formed other programs to help citizens cope in case of a disaster.
The Geophysical Institute and the Geological Survey of Israel help prepare for earthquakes by providing research-suppoorted readings and guidelines for ground engineers to use in building construction.
The Institute provides a seismic map with a special emphasis on clearly defining the active areas like the Dead Sea Basin, around the Gulf of Eilat and the Sea of Galilee. To date, a total of 17 active areas are known.
Reinforced buildings or buildings erected up to code are especially important when constructed over an area with soft sediment or soil. The soft sediment retains the energy, or resonance, from an earthquake, and that energy then travels up to the building, causing more shaking. This can lead to more damage and more casualties.
When buildings are built on such areas, the engineers come up with solutions to counter the problems that can arise from earthquakes. Another aid in preparation is learning from other countries that have also suffered from earthquakes.
"It's very clear," said Hofstetter, "that you have to focus more prevention before the earthquake - because you can't do much after."