Comptroller: Israel unprepared for future earthquakes

Lindenstrauss says report is "a red flag waving in front of" Netanyahu's government, Israel has not fixed "serious shortcomings."

Micha Lindenstrauss 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Micha Lindenstrauss 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Despite repeated warnings, the government has done little to prepare the country’s buildings and infrastructures for an earthquake of significant magnitude, which most experts believe could happen at any time, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss said, in a scathing report he submitted to Knesset State Control Committee on Wednesday.
“Most earthquake experts believe that the occurrence of an earthquake, which will claim the lives of thousands and cause grievous damage to buildings and property, is nearly certain and that it will happen sooner or later. Therefore preparing for such a scenario must be a top national priority,” wrote Lindenstrauss in the report’s introduction.
“Unfortunately the State Comptroller’s Office has been warning for 20 years, in a long series of reports, about Israel’s failure to prepare itself for such an occurrence, but as this report found, serious deficiencies have not been corrected and in some cases have increased.”
The state comptroller described the report as “a red flag” waving before the Netanyahu government and urged the prime minister and the relevant ministers to take quick action and make up for lost time.
Lindenstrauss also warned about ignoring state comptroller’s reports, pointing to the Carmel Forest fire disaster as an example of what could happen if state comptroller recommendations went unheeded.
“In light of the dismal picture that arose from the report’s findings, and in light of the harsh results of the December 2010 forest fire that blazed in the Carmel, and in light of the fact that the unambiguous conclusions of previous reports were not implemented, there rises a concern that the treatment of this critical matter is a symptom of a system-wide flaw in decision-making and management on the national level, which may also occur in the treatment of other matters,” wrote Lindenstrauss.
The report submitted Wednesday, which Lindenstrauss said was the fifth to deal with earthquake preparedness, dealt mostly with the government’s failure to implement its own previous decisions regarding the strengthening of buildings and infrastructures.
The report highlighted cabinet decisions from 2001 and 2004 ordering the relevant ministries to see to it that any deficiencies were corrected, with Lindenstrauss determining that little had been done to follow through on the orders.
“In general it is fair to say that in the decade that has passed since the 2001 report, there has been no substantial improvement in the country’s preparedness for earthquakes, even though in the time that has lapsed significant progress, even if gradual, could have been made by earmarking modest annual budgets for this purpose,” read the report.
The report noted that in the case of a severe earthquake, many of the hospitals around the country and especially in the north, may topple, but added that hospital emergency rooms that were fortified following the Second Lebanon War, provided a partial solution to the problem.
The report found that despite prior warnings, the Environmental Protection Ministry had yet to complete implementation of its own conclusions regarding the handling of plants housing dangerous materials, especially in the Haifa Bay area. In the case of an earthquake, leakage from such plants could severely harm the public and the environment, the report said.
The report criticized the Housing and Construction Ministry for failing to begin fortifying residential buildings in the North, claiming they failed even to assign a budget for that purpose in 2009 and 2010.
The report determined that it was up to the Interior Ministry to establish a professional agency to supervise the construction of public buildings in accordance with earthquake safety standards and urged Interior Minister Eli Yishai to take care of the matter immediately.
The report also noted that the government incentive program to fortify residential buildings, Tama 38, did not provide enough of an incentive and had failed to achieve the desired results. Very few buildings have been strengthened under the program, because in most locations the cost of such fortification exceeds the financial incentives offered.
When it came to placing personal responsibility for the shortcomings, the report pointed to the minister who chairs the Ministerial Committee on Earthquake Preparedness, a job filled since January by Minister without Portfolio Bennie Begin and before that by National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau.
Other ministers held responsible included Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Welfare and Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Attias. As health minister, the report noted, Netanyahu is also responsible for hospital preparedness.
The Interior Ministry said in response that the ministry was acting to strengthen buildings with the aid of the various planning instruments at its disposal, including providing professional instructions for implementing Tama 38, operating a website that provides information to the public and examining the need for plan updates.
The ministry claimed that even in places where it was financially worthwhile to participate in the Tama 38 incentive plan, the main obstacle was lack of public interest and awareness.
The Housing and Construction Ministry said in response to the report that it accepted its conclusions. They claimed that renovating buildings to withstand earthquakes depended on budgets, budgets that the Finance Ministry is not making available.
Bennie Begin could not be reached for comment.