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On Sunday morning at 9:45 there was an earthquake in Israel measuring 4.0 on the Richter scale. There were no casualties or damage, but it was the fourth minor quake in two weeks.
After one of these quakes, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik decided to put the matter on the Knesset's agenda. Last Wednesday, while attention was still turned to Annapolis, that debate was held. National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer did not bother to show up, but sent Minister-without-Portfolio Meshulam Nahari instead.
The last major quake in Israel, in 1927, has been estimated to have been 6.25 on the Richter scale. More than 300 people died and about 1,000 buildings were destroyed. A 2005 government report estimated that "if an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale were to occur in Beit She'an, there would be 16,000 dead, about 90,000 injured, about 400,000 refugees, and 130,000 buildings would collapse or be damaged."
Nahari told the Knesset that "according to the experts, a strong earthquake, at least as forceful as the 1927 quake, is expected to occur in Israel." Indeed, the record shows that such quakes occur about every 80 or 90 years (the previous major quake was in 1837).
Sometimes, seismologists tell us, smaller quakes are a good sign, in that they release the stress on a fault line and stave off a major quake. But these quakes can also be foreshocks warning that a major quake is on the way.
The California Office of Emergency Services, for example, periodically issues warnings of an increased likelihood of a major quake after a minor quake. In August 1989, such a warning was issued. The warning period passed, but 69 days after the minor quake a major quake did occur: the 7.1 Loma Prieta quake that killed 63 people and caused $6 billion in damage to the San Francisco Bay region.
What can be done about all this? At this point, nothing can be done to prevent or even accurately predict earthquakes. But much can be done to reduce the devastation they can cause.
The Knesset and the government need to establish committees to review earthquake preparedness, but not so much to make new recommendations as to determine why existing plans have not been implemented.
Dr. Ephraim Laor, who chaired a national panel on this subject, told Ynet this week: "The committee I chaired drafted conclusions, received authorization from the relevant bodies, but its decisions are not being implemented. Instead, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer continues to look for creative solutions and do nothing."
Laor warns that there are some 400,000 buildings not built according to the post-1975 building standards for hardening against earthquakes. These include 12,000 government offices, 1,820 schools, 5,400 kindergartens and 105 factories - some of them containing hazardous materials that could increase the damage caused by the quake.
It is the government's job to reinforce public buildings of all kinds. With the economy doing well and tax revenues up, there is no better time to make this investment, which will save its cost many times over if it can be accomplished before the next major quake.
It is also the government's job to make the public aware of what it can do. Most people are not aware of how they can and should reinforce apartment buildings built before 1975, and that they gain financially in the bargain through tax benefits and realizing extra building rights.
In 1990, the US Geological Survey, in cooperation with humanitarian and emergency aid organizations, produced a magazine titled, "The Next Big Earthquake in the [San Francisco] Bay Area May Come Sooner Than You Think - Are You Prepared?" The publication, distributed by 41 area newspapers to more than 2.5 million households, explained the risk of earthquakes and what the public can do to help protect itself.
This may be a good model for informing the public on this critical matter, but there are many others. The key is a decision to coordinate such an effort and to budget sufficient funds to carry it out.
The exact advent of a major earthquake may not be predictable, but the chances of one occurring over the next few decades are very high. Rather than wait for that quake, its devastation, and the post-quake commission of inquiry into why none of the various recommendations for preparedness were heeded, perhaps the government should do its job and greatly reduce the scope of an entirely foreseeable disaster.
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