Waiting for the Quake

Israel is within the period in which a destructive earthquake could strike.

Earthquake 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Earthquake 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
AN AUTHORITATIVE-SOUNDING NARRATOR declares: “A severe earthquake in Israel is just a matter of time. Examining your building’s structural integrity and knowing what to do in an earthquake can save lives. Don’t let an earthquake catch you unprepared!” Lately, the Infrastructure Ministry has been broadcasting a pair of public service announcements (PSA) on television. One of the PSAs shows a cooing baby in a crib and the baby’s young, delighted mother. But soon the room begins to shake and the woman, clearly frightened, scoops up the infant and rushes out as the furniture begins to topple, the walls crack, and a large, heavy shelf falls smack on the crib, smashing it to pieces.
In the other, a young, curly-haired boy sleeps soundly in his bed as the toys and books on his dresser and shelves begin to rattle and fall. But aside from that and a little dust that starts to settle from the ceiling, not much happens; the youngster remains asleep – and safe – blissfully unaware of what’s just happened.
The first message is clear: The sleeping boy’s parents took the proper precautions; the baby’s mother did not. But there’s a much more subtle message, too: You’d better prepare yourselves, because the government won’t be doing it for you.
“OUR REGION IS MODERATELY PRONE TO EARTHQUAKES,” Dr. Ron Avni, a lecturer on the subject at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, tells The Jerusalem Report. “We are astride the Syrian-African Rift, which consists here basically of two geological plates rubbing against each other. The western side, where Israel is, is moving south, while the eastern side, where Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are, is moving north.”
Avni’s specialty is the history of earthquakes, which, he says, is the way to predict them. “Historically, we have a destructive earthquake in our region every 100 years, plus/minus 20, meaning every 80 to 120 years,” he says. “There was one in 1759 in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley, which is farther to the north along the rift. The next one was in 1837, around Safed, which is today in northern Israel. The one after that came in 1927; the epicenter was under the northern part of the Dead Sea. So since 2007, we’ve been within the period in which we can expect the next destructive earthquake.”
The two primary variables regarding severity, says Avni, are the location of the epicenter and the magnitude, which represents the stress that has built up underground from seismological activity. The next major quake, he adds, “will probably be somewhere north of the Dead Sea and will measure six to seven on the Richter scale.”
What all this means for your average citizen depends on his or her distance from the epicenter, the geological structure of the ground between these two points, and the type of construction of the building he or she may be in or near. Not to be overlooked, however, is the time of day.
“At 2 a.m., when most people are home and fast asleep, you can expect higher casualties – people are inside a structure that can collapse or in which there is falling debris, and, being asleep, they’ll react much more slowly,” Avni explains. “If it’s during the day, even if they’re inside a structure, they will be capable of taking action much more quickly. Obviously, the best time for an earthquake, if you can say such a thing, might be at mid-day on Independence Day, when just about everyone is at the beach, at a picnic or on an outing outdoors.”
But there are 364 other days of the year, and according to eqred.gov.il, a government website, estimates regarding the worst scenario show 10,000 buildings destroyed and 20,000 seriously damaged, with 16,000 dead, 6,000 seriously injured and 83,000 suffering from lesser injuries.
THE BUILDINGS THAT WILL BE MOST SERIOUSLY affected by Israel’s next major quake, experts say, will be those constructed prior to 1980, when the first buildings went up according to earthquake-resistance standards adopted in 1975.
“The changes are mostly reflected in the amount of concrete and steel used in construction,” says Eran Rolls, chairman of the Israel Building Center, which describes itself as a body promoting best practices in the country’s construction sector.
“Today’s concrete is more cement and less filler, making it stronger. And the use of rebars is more extensive,” he tells The Report, using professional terminology for reinforcement bars, those thick strands of steel that construction workers weld together and insert into the molds where concrete is poured to form pillars and beams. “There is a dramatic difference in strength between the two building standards. Post-1980 structures might crack in an earthquake and there might even be extensive damage. But they probably will not collapse.”
How many of the country’s households does this cover? “About 900,000 units have been constructed since 1980, when the new standards went into effect,” Rolls says. “There are about two million households in Israel. This means that more than half of the residences in Israel may not meet current earthquake standards, which in turn means three to four million people [may be affected].”
Probably most at risk is public housing that went up quickly in the 1950s and 1960s to absorb new immigrants and house the poor.
“Of the 1.1 million or so buildings that probably don’t meet the current earthquake standards, close to half are shikkunim,” he says, referring to these boxy and drab structures. “If there is a serious earthquake, we’re looking at a nightmare. Entire buildings will be lying on the ground in rubble.” And this is only the residential sector. There are also office, commercial and public buildings.
“There are 3,500 structures in country defined as public buildings that were built prior to 1980,” Dr. Avi Shapira, a worldrenowned seismologist who chairs the government steering committee for earthquake preparedness, tells The Report. “The best example is schools, but also hospitals, welfare institutions, police stations, fire stations, prisons, etc.”
The state is taking responsibility for bringing those public structures built prior to 1980 up to post-1980 standards.
“We have an annual budget of 140 million shekels (close to $39 million) to reinforce public buildings against earthquakes,” Shapira says. “The upgrade program started this year, and it’s slated to continue for 25 years, with a total budget of NIS 3.5 billion.
We also hope to develop newer methods that will speed up the process and bring down costs. This year we’re hoping to reinforce 70 buildings.”
Do the math: This comes out to just half of the 3,500 pre-1980 public buildings. Even if quicker and cheaper methods are developed as the project moves along, efforts will probably fall far short.
Shapira explains this discrepancy by saying that many of thesestructures will have outlived their usefulness before the end of the 25-year upgrade program and will either be demolished or transferred to private hands – in which case upgrades would become the responsibility of the new owners.
A government initiative is now seeking to convince home owners living in pre-1980 structures to undergo a retrofit designed to bring their buildings up to standard.
“It’s like a cage,” says the Israel Building Center’s Rolls. “It’s difficult to get into an existing foundation and pillars in order to strengthen them, so the idea is to reinforce them from the outside.”
Estimates place the per-unit cost at anywhere from NIS 20,000 to NIS 50,000 ($5,500 to $14,000). The state will not be footing the bill. As authorities are well aware that these sums are probably beyond the reach of many homeowners, the government is using an incentive, called National Outline Plan 38, which offers a substantial zoning variance on allowable floor space to those who opt for a retrofit.
“The cage could be built away from existing outer walls, enabling homeowners to add a sun deck or even to expand rooms outward, depending on the maximum allowable footprint,” Rolls explains. “But even better, the initiative would allow building contractors to add one or two additional stories, depending on the structure’s original height. They could then sell the new top-floor apartments for a profit, while the existing homeowners have the cost of the earthquake retrofit reduced or covered entirely by the sum the contractor pays them for the rooftop building rights. The homeowners could even make a profit.”
So far, few seem to have taken the government up on its offer or even contacted local planning councils for further information, with sources in the Interior Ministry, which oversees the councils, estimating it to be “a very small” number of homeowners. “To my sorrow,” Rolls sighs, “the public just doesn’t understand.”
ONCE AN EARTHQUAKE HITS, THE MOST IMMEDIATE problem is coping with casualties, and the Ministry of Health has an entire section whose job is to prepare for this.
“This year our plan is to reinforce the structures at four hospitals,” Danny Laor, head of the ministry’s Emergency and Disaster Management Division, tells The Report, alluding to the program for public buildings mentioned above by Shapira. “But there’s also a need for emergency generators, water supplies and the like, and we have to make sure the hospitals have all this.”
Immediate response is undertaken by emergency and rescue forces, starting with the police, fire department and Magen David Adom ambulance crews, with senior police personnel taking overall charge. The army takes over once its Home Front Command is fully mobilized, which might take as long as 24 to 48 hours because many of its personnel are reservists. Home Front will provide logistics and supplies, as well as the rescue and recovery crews seen clambering over and around piles of rubble with special equipment and dogs trained to literally sniff out trapped victims; so far, the crews have done almost all their work abroad, most recently in Haiti.
Public spaces in or near residential areas, such as parks, have been pre-designated by local authorities as collection points for those with injuries. There, the injured will undergo triage, with the worst cases being sent on to hospitals.
“Triage is never easy in cases of mass casualties,” Laor says. “It’s not just deciding who can be saved and who can’t – it’s deciding who will be saved, and this requires knowledge, the ability to make decisions under pressure and, just as important, integrity.”
The vast majority of the injured will be suffering from fractures, while a small proportion, about four percent, will be those with what’s known as “crush syndrome.” That’s where people are trapped under the heavy weight of rubble; their bodies react first to ongoing pressure against muscle and organs, and then to the pressure being relieved once they’re extracted. Without immediate and special treatment, there is a good chance they’ll die.
But what people generally don’t think about, Laor says, is the emotional trauma. “We fully expect to have seven and a half million people who require psychological treatment, whether it’s just someone to talk to or real treatment for emotional shock and collapse,” he explains, using a number that roughly parallels the entire population of Israel. “After a severe earthquake, a lot of people will have to cope with difficult conditions – perhaps living outdoors, requiring food and sanitary services – and this creates tremendous emotional stress. There will be people who refuse to leave their apartments or buildings for fear that their property might be looted. And we’re not even beginning to talk about those who have lost loved ones.”
In the longer term, the Health Ministry will be faced with everything from testing water supplies for contamination to preventing the outbreak of disease due to a drop in hygiene.
"Are we preparing ourselves? Yes, definitely,” Laor insists. “We’re always developing new plans, buying new equipment. But are we ready? It’s hard to say. It’s clear that things will not go exactly according to plan. They almost never do. People ask about casualties, how many there will be, what types of injuries.
We have prepared ourselves for a scenario that experts in many, many fields have devised. But will that scenario be the one that plays out? We can’t possibly know.”
It all comes back to those public service announcements on TV, the ones warning citizens not to let an earthquake catch them unprepared.
“The most important thing, before government officials even come into the picture, is for each individual to prepare for an earthquake and to know what to do during and after, and to make sure his family does, too,” Laor concludes. “The attitude ‘it’s not going to happen to me’ is wrong, because chances are it will.”