Seven thousand dead; 9,000 wounded, mostly in serious condition; 30,000 buildings so damaged that they will no longer be inhabitable, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without a home and on the street where damage to infrastructure is estimated to reach up to NIS 200 billion.
The result of a future war with Hezbollah? No. A nuclear attack by Iran? Also no. Instead, this is the government’s official worst-case scenario of what it predicts would potentially happen one day when a major earthquake shakes the State of Israel.
“In terms of damage to buildings and infrastructure and the number of displaced, it would be an unprecedented disaster for Israel,” the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee wrote in a 2016 report. “From the point of view of causalities, the scale would be more than three times that of the Yom Kippur War occurring all at once, in the space of a few minutes.”
It is a scenario worth considering after the recent spate of natural disasters that have struck the United States and caused catastrophic destruction there and throughout the Caribbean. Watching the videos from Miami, St. Thomas and Houston should be enough for us to ask whether Israel is prepared for a mass-casualty event, one that is not man-made like war, but comes from an even fiercer and unpredictable adversary – Mother Nature.
Israel does not have to worry about hurricanes for the simple reason that the climate in the eastern Mediterranean is too dry for the likes of the storms that have been pummeling the southern part of the United States.
But earthquakes are a different story. Israel sits on the Syrian-African fault line, part of the Great Rift Valley that encompasses the area from northern Syria to Mozambique. While earthquakes in the region tend to be small – the most recent one which hit near Acre in April measured 3 on the Richter scale – it is not immune to larger and deadlier quakes.
In 1927, for example, an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale shook the Holy Land. The epicenter was the northern part of the Dead Sea, inflicting most of the damage on Jericho, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Nablus.
More than 500 people were killed and 700 more were injured. The Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre sustained significant damage, while the tower of the Augusta Victoria Hospital on Mount Scopus collapsed.
Ninety years earlier, in 1837, a magnitude 6.5 quake struck the Galilee, killing an estimated 6,000-7,000 people. Safed, for example, was completely destroyed.
Considering that we are now 90 years after the 1927 earthquake, some geologists believe it is just a matter of time before the next deadly quake strikes the country.
Israel, these scientists believe, is sitting on a time bomb.
But is the country getting ready? Is Israel prepared for a natural disaster? In 2007, as part of the lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War, the Defense Ministry established the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) to better prepare the home front for future missile onslaughts from Israel’s enemies. NEMA also took upon itself the responsibility of prepping the country for natural disasters – which in Israel’s case means earthquakes and tsunamis.
“We are not yet at the level of preparedness we need to be,” a senior Defense Ministry official told me this week. “We need to do more to reinforce buildings and to get families to prepare their own homes for these kind of situations.”
That doesn’t mean that nothing is being done. Surprisingly, there is a lot of activity. This past year, for example, was designated by NEMA as “earthquake year” during which a focus has been put on three parallel but independent tracks aimed at upping the nation’s level of readiness.
The first track is the reinforcement of buildings and public institutions throughout the country, but particularly in the more vulnerable areas along the fault line.
NEMA recently submitted a plan to the government calling for the annual allocation of NIS 400 million over a 10-year period that would be used to reinforce the 80,000 buildings considered to be the most vulnerable in the event of an earthquake. So far, not a single shekel has been allocated.
These are buildings constructed before the 1980s, when the government set a new standard for construction with stronger foundations that are believed to be capable of withstanding earthquakes. While the government’s Tama 38 reconstruction program is meant to give people the opportunity to renovate and expand their buildings in exchange for reinforcing their foundations, only about 3,000 buildings have signed up so far. That is just a drop in the bucket.
The second track has been NEMA’s investment in a publicity campaign aimed at raising the public’s awareness of the potential risks and getting people to take life-saving steps in their own homes. One example is as simple as bolting closets to walls. Another is storing large pots in ground-level cupboards where they cannot fall and hurt someone.
“These simple steps have the potential to save lives during a massive earthquake,” the official said.
The third track has seen a greater government financial investment in the development and procurement of technological systems that can be helpful in predicting and warning of imminent natural disasters. One example is a sophisticated system recently deployed long Israel’s Mediterranean coast that will be able to detect and warn of incoming tsunamis if they are the result of earthquakes in places like Greece or Cyprus.
In May, the government announced that Canadian company Nanometrics had been selected to install an early-warning earthquake system in the Dead Sea Valley, the Jordan Valley and the Haifa area, all earthquake- prone regions. At the same time, Israel’s Geophysical Institute is upgrading all of its seismic systems.
Earlier this year, NEMA hosted a week-long conference in conjunction with the University of Haifa and experts from around the world to review existing warning systems and see if any can be developed or modified to warn of incoming earthquakes.
“If we can get 5 or 10 seconds of warning, we can potentially save thousands of lives,” the official said.
Israel is a country that faces a long list of unimaginable threats and challenges. Hezbollah in Lebanon has more than 130,000 rockets and missiles with the capability of striking anywhere in the country. Hamas in Gaza has dug attack tunnels under the border into Israel and has a stockpile of tens of thousands of rockets that, as we saw in the Gaza War of 2014, have the ability of reaching Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem.
To Israel’s south, in the Sinai Peninsula, ISIS continues to pose a threat to the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, but also to the resort city of Eilat. And looming on the horizon is Iran, which is solidifying its presence in Syria as it continues to search for ways to advance its nuclear program despite the nuclear deal of 2015.
The difference is that all of these are human adversaries, some more rational and others less. But most come with a degree of predictability that allows the government and its intelligence agencies to predict what an adversary will do and how it would respond to Israeli action, whether peaceful or aggressive. Nothing is foolproof, but humans tend to be able to read other humans.
The same cannot be said of Mother Nature. The ground that moves beneath our feet will do so at its own will. There’s nothing we, as people, can do to influence when Israel will next be shaken.
That doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do. I, at least, will start by making sure our pots are on the bottom shelf.
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