Country not ready for quakes, Knesset panel warns

Chairman Bar-On calls on government to help families fortify homes.

Aftermath of earthquake [file] 390 (photo credit: Thinkstock)
Aftermath of earthquake [file] 390
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
The Knesset State Control Committee slammed ministers on Monday for delaying plans to fortify hospitals in the North against earthquakes, and for failing to issue planning tenders for the project.
During a special hearing to examine progress to fortify public buildings against earthquakes, the committee also blasted the government for failing to close plants containing hazardous materials, which could pose a significant public danger in the case of a seismic event.
Monday’s hearing came in response to two scathing reports by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, the most recent of which was submitted to Knesset in March 2011.
In that March report, which slammed the government for a litany of failures in its preparation for earthquakes, Lindenstrauss said readying the country’s infrastructure for an earthquake of significant magnitude should be a “top national priority.”
Israel is at risk of earthquakes because of its location near the Syrian-African fault line, which borders the country to the east and extends many sub-fault systems including in the north of the country. The last earthquake of magnitude hit the region in July 1927, killing 300 people and injuring many more, and in 2010, the Contractors and Builders Association presented a report to the government, warning that a million homes and hundreds of public buildings are at risk of collapse in a future earthquake.
Among those present at Monday’s State Control Committee meeting were Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin, who chairs the Ministerial Committee on Earthquake Preparedness, and representatives of the State Comptroller’s Office, the Treasury and the Interior, Defense, Health, Public Security, Welfare and Energy and Water ministries.
As the meeting opened, Boaz Aner, director-general of the State Comptroller’s Office, said the country must expect that an earthquake will occur, adding that the reality of Israel’s position is such that it must also fortify its infrastructure against war damage.
“A modern state must be prepared,” Aner said. “We would have been in a far better position today had we not already wasted over 10 years.”
Committee chairman Ronnie Bar-On (Kadima) called on ministers to help families fortify their homes by promoting Tama 38, the government’s incentive program to fortify residential buildings against earthquakes.
Under Tama 38, residents of buildings constructed prior to 1980, when strict new building regulations came into force, are eligible for grants to improve earthquake fortifications.
Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias (Shas) said he supported Tama 38, but added that despite incentives, take-up of the program has been low, especially in peripheral regions where weaker and poorer populations live.
Attias also said the program had been delayed because of strong opposition from the Justice Ministry. Under the plan, two-thirds of tenants in a building must agree to the project before it can go ahead.
Attias said the Construction and Housing Ministry has asked the Justice Ministry to change the terms of the plan so that a simple majority of 51 percent of tenants must agree, but that request has yet to be confirmed.
Attias added that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was unhappy with the issue, and according to the housing minister has said he preferred the terms to be changed so that no agreement from tenants was needed in order to go ahead with the earthquake reinforcements.
According to Attias, the Construction and Housing Ministry had been allocated NIS 90 million to fortify public housing against earthquakes, but that the budget had only been granted this year. The minister said that work would commence this year.
“We will undertake urban renewal in 37 communities, and we have increased the budget in order to allow us to fortify structures,” Attias said.
“The larger the budget we are allocated, the more buildings we can fortify. There’s no ‘hocus pocus’ involved here, it’s an obvious and direct correlation.”
MK Dov Henin (Hadash) raised the issue of reinforcing public housing in poorer neighborhoods in high-risk cities such as Beit She’an, Tiberias and Kiryat Shmona, and said this project was important not just to minimize earthquake damage, but also to prevent damage in case of war.
Henin called on the government to set out a clear timetable for carrying out the fortifications in public housing.
Avi Shapira, chairman of the steering committee for earthquake preparedness in the Prime Minister’s Office, said in many cases contractors did not want to begin fortifying residential buildings if tenants objected.
Minister-without-portfolio and chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Earthquake Preparedness Begin said the government had allocated NIS 140 million for earthquake preparedness.
“I am not interested in an earthquake that could happen in 20,000 years, and if we prepared for such then we would have no budget for health, security or education,” Begin said. “We are estimating that an earthquake will happen every thousand years.”
Begin said that with the exception of Japan, “no other country in the world gives incentives for fortifying buildings against earthquakes as we do.”
He added that part of the problem with Tama 38 is psychological, as residents do not want to have to live “in the middle of a building site,” and said the project needs time in order to be successful.
Addressing the state comptroller’s criticisms regarding the danger of hazardous materials in plants, Begin said he did not believe the risks of the ammonia plant in Haifa were as high as Lindenstrauss had suggested.
Health Ministry deputy director- general Yehuda Ron said reinforcing Galilee Medical Faculty in Safed, Poriya Hospital near Tiberias, and the Rambam and Bnai Zion hospitals in Haifa against earthquakes was complicated because the plans needed to allow for the continual working of all hospital departments.
Ron said building tenders have yet to be issued to reinforce some of the hospitals.