In My Own Write: Case of the killer buildings

God forbid that apathy should cost us dear.

By
October 25, 2011 22:52
Rescue workers after earthquake in Turkey

Rescue workers after earthquake in Turkey 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Abdurrahman Antakyali/Anadolu Agency)

 
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Think of the street where you live. Of your building; of your home inside that building; of everything you see in your neighborhood when you step outside.

These surroundings are not just comfortingly familiar, they are a natural part of our lives that we take utterly and unthinkingly for granted.

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Now look at the images caused by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that hit southern Turkey on Sunday, destroying dozens of buildings and killing hundreds of people, with hundreds more dead or trapped under the fallen masonry.

The notion of something similar happening here – of seeing the familiar and seemingly permanent collapsed into a pile of rubble, the frightening possibility of losing everything in an instant – is so disorienting, so dreadful that our minds shy away from it. We simply reject the idea.

And yet seismologists are warning that a major earthquake could not only occur in this country, but is expected. A fault line called the Syrian-African Rift stretching from Syria to Mozambique passes through Israel and makes it earthquake-prone. The last major quake, 6.2 on the Richter scale, hit here in 1927, its epicenter the northern end of the Dead Sea; it killed 500 and injured 700. An even more destructive quake – termed the “Safed Earthquake” – struck in 1837, killing anywhere between 4,000 and 7,000 people in the area of Safed and Tiberias.

It’s time, the experts warn, for another “Big One.”

ANOTHER thing the experts agree on is that when an earthquake hits, what overwhelmingly kills is flimsy or shoddy construction. We’ve seen it happen, often and devastatingly, in countries and areas where building codes are poor or non-existent.



A timeline of recent major earthquakes compiled by Reuters includes: India (2001, killing at least 19,700 people); Algeria (2003, killing 2,251 and injuring 10,243); Iran (2003, killing 30,948); Asia (2004, almost 230,000 dead and missing in an earthquake and tsunami); Pakistan (2005, at least 86,000 killed; another 1,244 dead in Indian Kashmir); China (2008, around 87,600 killed); Haiti (2010, around 316,000 killed; 10 million cubic meters of rubble); Chile (2010, more than 500 dead, hundreds of thousands of homes wrecked, highways and bridges mangled); Japan (March 2011, 15,690 killed, 4,740 missing, 5,710 injured).

And now Turkey, where more than 1,300 have been injured, and the final death toll could reach 1,000.

Earthquakes belong in a category of events termed “force majeure,” or an irresistible force (of nature). If thunderstorms are, as I once heard someone explain to a child, “God moving his furniture around,” then an earthquake must be the Devil tearing his subterranean abode apart in a fit of fury or home improvement.

It’s true that we cannot do much to prevent this force of nature; but we can, and ought – in the name of human decency and simple self-preservation – to do everything we can to ensure that the structures we inhabit will withstand the impact of a major quake.

WHICH is where Tama 38, also known as National Master Plan 38, comes in.

Aware that building to an earthquake safety code became standard practice here only in 1980 – and that 96,000 residential structures erected before that date were in danger of collapse in a 7.5-magnitude quake – in January 2005 the Interior Ministry came up with an initiative that, as one commentator put it, “should have been a hit.”

Many of these older buildings were public housing, the apartments in them small and cramped.

Broadly, residents of a building at risk of earthquake collapse would sign over their roof to an approved contractor, who would then build one or even two additional stories on top of the existing ones. In return for this “gift,” the contractor would not only undertake to retrofit the building to meet the earthquake safety code, but sweeten the deal by adding extra goodies such as an elevator, an additional room for each apartment, an attractive new entrance and lobby, perhaps a storeroom, improved parking facilities, and so on.

And it wouldn’t cost the residents a penny.

The range and extent of the improvements would depend on the real-estate value of the area in question, and how much profit a contractor could make on the new apartments. The municipality’s role would be to issue the necessary permits, heretofore almost impossible to obtain, and to appoint professionals to supervise the work and ensure that the codes laid down were adhered to.

From a resident’s point of view, Tama 38 seems like a win-win proposition, especially when the huge rise in the value of these improved properties is factored in. And indeed, savvy groups of residents, mainly in the center of the country, soon saw the undoubted benefits and acted together to fortify their homes against earthquakes while enhancing them considerably at no expense to themselves.

MY building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot- Arnona (24 apartments, two entrances) was constructed in the 1970s and stands partly on columns (amudim) – which led me in 2008 to the conclusion that we could not afford to remain sanguine in the face of a probable earthquake.

Four or five apartment owners whom I approached agreed.

It is perhaps an ill-chosen metaphor to say that I moved heaven and earth to bring the remaining 20 or so residents around to our way of thinking – but I did read up on Tama 38, approached a couple of contractors, and obtained written offers. I even went to City Hall and interviewed two officials about the plan.

Then we had a residents’ meeting, to which I had invited one of the interested contractors, a likable and dynamic young man. Regrettably he had to cancel at the last minute.

Frankly, I would have thought that residents of at-risk buildings would be fighting to get ahead in the line for Tama 38, given its clear desirability. Sadly, no. At least, not in Jerusalem. One contractor told me: “Residents of this city are so suspicious. Offer them something, and they think you want to take something away from them.” He wished me luck in persuading “my” residents to go for Tama 38, while venturing his opinion that I would fail.

He was right. Apart from our small group of enthusiasts, reactions ranged from apathy to outright hostility.

“Maybe an earthquake will happen, maybe it won’t,” said one resident, himself a small-scale contractor. “I don’t worry about maybes…” “I don’t care,” was another’s response to my explaining that her post-Tama apartment would be worth hugely more than its present value. Go figure.

I couldn’t understand these responses, especially since we had been having serious discussions about installing an elevator – which we would have to pay a lot for. Apparently, the prospect of getting one free did not entice.

GOING on articles I have read, the chief stumbling block to the widescale adoption of Tama 38 has been getting residents to agree. One Haaretz piece featured two contractors who entered a building and went around explaining the plan, adding that in order to make room to install the elevator, they would need to take away a half-meter from each apartment.

“But we’ll give you a whole room on the other side,” they said.

Retorted one man gruffly: “Lo meter, velo hatzi meter (Not a meter, nor even a half-meter).”

TO BE fair, even in my neighborhood, a couple of billboards recently went up announcing that the building behind is to be renovated according to Tama 38, and detailing the proposed improvements. The problem of recalcitrant residents has likely been eased by an amendment in the plan which states that only 66 percent have to agree to it (though the contractors I spoke to said they would not take on a project unless the residents were united).

I thought, back in 2008 – and I still think – that Tama 38 was insufficiently promoted by its planners; that having come up with an important and creative solution to the danger posed by an earthquake, they did little to inform people or inspire their confidence in it. I haven’t noticed any public service TV broadcasts describing the plan, nor read any official promotional material in the press.

And that’s a great pity.

With the freeing of Gilad Schalit, it has been pointed out endlessly that we are a nation that values human life above all. How, then, to explain the attitude of the many who live in shaky accommodation yet shrug their shoulders in the face of probable risk to themselves and their families? As far as I can see, the only downside to going for Tama 38 is seeing one’s surroundings turned into a building site for a year, maybe more.

It could be difficult – but better that than the alternative.

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