Comptroller: Israel is not ready for a major earthquake

Experts in the field believe that the occurrence of a strong earthquake is almost certain and that its impact on different regions of the country will be enormous.

Footage of the earthquake in northern Israel captured by road cameras, July 4, 2018 (Netivei Israel)
Israel is not prepared for a major earthquake, a report released by the state comptroller on Wednesday states, warning of unsecured residential and public buildings and possible damage to crucial infrastructure.
The report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira comes at a time when dozens of tremors have been felt around northern Israel in recent weeks.
Experts in the field believe that the occurrence of a strong earthquake is almost certain and that its impact on various regions of the country will be enormous.
The State Comptroller’s Office stated that according to information received by the government, the situation it needs to prepare for could result in an estimated 7,000 people killed, another 8,600 seriously injured, 37,000 lightly injured, 9,500 trapped in rubble and 170,000 left homeless.
The office conducted an audit between July 2017 and February 2018 of the relevant ministries’ and authorities’ readiness in the face of earthquakes, focusing on a major one. Completion tests were conducted in May.
Out of more than 70 bridges rated at high seismic-risk level 1, only three bridges were reinforced by the end of the audit. In the absence of an Israeli standard requiring the reinforcement of bridges against earthquakes, the report says, Netivei Israel – National Transport Infrastructure Company Ltd., which is responsible for planning, developing and maintaining the country’s interurban road network, has worked to formulate an outline for planning and decision-making on the bridges that require reinforcement.
In addition to the bridges under the company’s authority, there are additional ones that are under the jurisdiction of local authorities and other infrastructure companies, but the Transportation Ministry did not promote the formulation of a uniform standard or guidelines for testing their resistance to earthquakes and for their reinforcement, the comptroller said.
The report also flagged that by the end of the audit only 50 schools (3%) had been reinforced and 200 (12.5%) were in planning stages of reinforcement, out of 1,600 that are due to be reinforced. These are buildings that were built before the 1980s; in 1984, standards began to be enforced for earthquake durability, and therefore those built before then are in danger of collapsing during a quake.
As part of its preparations for an earthquake, the government decided that the reinforcement of schools – which have hundreds of thousands of students – is a central goal.
“Despite the Education Ministry’s attempts to jump-start the reinforcement project in the local authorities – while allocating a dedicated budget and training engineers and contractors to carry out the work – to date, the minority of schools have been reinforced,” the comptroller said.
“Since the implementation of the reinforcement depends on the local authorities, and the Education Ministry does not have the authority to oblige them to implement it, full cooperation is required from all the relevant bodies, including the Education Ministry, the local authorities, the steering committee and the Interior Ministry,” he said.
In addition to the schools built before 1984, prefabricated schools are also at risk, and the comptroller said no solution has been found for them.
In addition, there are thousands of students who study in private buildings that are not owned by the local authority and whose earthquake durability has not been tested.
The ministry said in response to the report: “The reinforcement of educational institutions against earthquakes is carried out in accordance with a government decision and guidelines of an interministerial steering committee. In recent years, the ministries of Education and Finance have allocated NIS 360 million for the reinforcement of buildings. A further NIS 80m. will be allocated for this issue in the coming year, and the ministry is cooperating with the local authorities in strengthening 256 schools that were classified as high priority. The ministry continues to add schools for the reinforcement process, subject to a list established by the interministerial steering committee.”
The ministry also noted that every year it conducts earthquake drills in all educational institutions and provides rescue training for 10th graders throughout the country. The ministry also mentioned that 3,073 earthquake alert systems have been installed so far, and that every year from now on another 250 systems will be installed until all educational institutions have them. This is all part of a multiyear project which is set to be completed by 2035.
Buildings housing hospitals, health institutions and emergency services are also a concern, in light of the only partial implementation of a 2008 government decision calling for their reinforcement. Moreover, the report says that the Health Ministry has no information on the condition of geriatric and nursing institutions, which serve thousands of citizens in nursing, rehabilitative and psychiatric departments.
Fire stations, which would play a critical role as first responders in the event of an earthquake, had no comprehensive information about the stations themselves, which could also be heavily damaged in an earthquake. Some 185 police stations, fire stations, Magen David Adom and prison service facilities were built before the 1980s, the report notes.
There have also been delays in the government Tama 38 reconstruction program, which seeks to reinforce buildings built before 1980. In the first 10 years of the project, which began in 2005, only 2,780 residential buildings were approved for reinforcement.
In peripheral areas close to the Syrian-African fault line, which are most at risk in the event of an earthquake, the Tama 38 program “has hardly been implemented,” according to the report.
The comptroller also raised the possibility that Israel’s only natural gas pipeline could be damaged by an earthquake.
Delays in the addition of another pipeline mean that the electricity sector is in danger of heavy disruptions, the report warns, adding that the Energy Ministry has not provided sufficient solutions for alternatives for natural gas in such a scenario.
Knesset State Control Committee chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) described the report as a “resounding wake-up call, perhaps the last, before a disaster that will take thousands of lives. This is the sixth report by the comptroller dedicated exclusively to earthquakes, but the findings of the new report reveal zero action [as well as] operational failures and total abandonment,” she said.
She also said that the report was “a painful reminder” of Israel’s reliance on only one gas pipeline. “And now it turns out that an earthquake could leave Israel without gas, which would put the economy at risk of severe electricity disruptions, when in any case there would be complete chaos in the country.”
Yacimovich announced that in view of the severity of the report, a discussion will be held next week with the participation National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat.