Bracing for a quake

Urgently needed is a publicly-financed, disinterested, broad and universally available framework that would objectively survey all pre-1980 buildings and suggest to residents what can plausibly be done to quake-proof them.

October 24, 2012 23:03
3 minute read.
Home Front Command earthquake drill

Home Front Command earthquake drill. (photo credit: Hadas Parush)


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Were it not for news reports this week, average Israelis would have remained blissfully unaware of the country’s largest-scale ever drills to prepare us for a mega-quake.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. One of the exercise’s prime objectives was to instruct the public in emergency protocols.

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Alarms were to be sent out to Smartphones, and TV and radio broadcasts were interrupted. But most phones received no disaster alerts and unless anxious individuals sought out emergency on-air announcements, they never heard them. Except for isolated communities, folks did not practice following evacuation routes, and if they did, most didn’t time themselves.

Doubtless, this afforded more than photo-ops, but the beneficiaries were almost exclusively first-responders. The rest was hype.

It is not that we do not have what to fear, straddling as we do a major geological fault line – the Afro-Syrian rift – where two restless tectonic plates rub against each other. The Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley are the physical manifestations of that rift in our country.

Geologists warn us to expect a major quake (above 7 on the Richter Scale) sometime within 50 years. It can happen any day or not for decades to come. If the temblor proves to be of a particularly destructive magnitude or in a lethally nearby location, no part of the country would be safe.

Major earthquakes are approximately a once-in-a-millennium phenomenon here and experts judge we are due one soon. We are tremendously more densely populated than in 1033, when the last great seism struck this country. That makes us tremendously more vulnerable, our hi-tech lifestyle notwithstanding. Pretending we have time will not make us safer.

Committees aplenty had been set up and compiled learned recommendations on shoring up structures and preparing for what is more likely to come, a quake like that of 1927, which – bad as it was – was not the “big one.”

All the talk has produced are scare-mongering commercials geared to induce the citizenry to reinforce buildings constructed before 1980, when more stringent codes went into effect (though nobody has examined how scrupulously those codes were implemented for structures built since then).

There is a business aspect to all this. A state-sponsored program known by the Hebrew acronym TAMA-38 proposes to buttress and expand older apartment houses at no cost to the residents, while the contractors who do the job are compensated by being granted the right to construct additional floors and sell off the new flats. There is considerable enticement here to homeowners. Besides increased safety, they are offered upgrades and substantial renovations – seemingly for free.

On the surface at least this looks like a win-win scheme – a dream formula where everyone benefits and the public coffers are not emptied. So why has the program not taken off? Why has there been no mass rush to reap the advantages it ostensibly extends? Red tape is part of the problem. Not every municipality is eager to issue permits, as concerns about overcrowding and urban quality of life grow. Financial complications abound, involving collateral, for example. The natural conservatism of residents also plays a role.

Then there is the particularly vexing reality of incentive.

The greatest hazards exist for towns closest to the rift. Locations such as Tiberias, Beit She’an, Hatzor Haglilit or Kiryat Shmona aren’t prime real estate. Their less-than-well-off residents do not have the wherewithal to finance their own projects, while profit-seeking contractors are unlikely to invest in locations where sales of new apartments won’t net much.

Prof. David Yankelevsky of the Technion’s Civil Engineering Faculty charges that “TAMA-38 is no plan. It provides no guidelines on how to quake-proof buildings, on which buildings should be reinforced, etc.” Moreover, most folks cannot assess the sturdiness of their homes. Many are loath to rely on the opinions of contractors with vested interests.

Urgently needed is a publicly-financed, disinterested, broad and universally available framework that would objectively survey all pre-1980 buildings and suggest to residents what can plausibly be done to quake-proof them.

Obviously, merely dispensing practical advice costs money – to say nothing of retrofitting old structures. But it is better than any alternative. Knowledge is a vital first step.

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