Quake exercise leaves more questions than answers

Reporter's Notebook: Drill may be less for earthquakes, more for “practical scenarios, such as missiles falling.”

Home Front Command earthquake drill (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Home Front Command earthquake drill
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
A “high school” in Holon’s impoverished Jesse Cohen neighborhood was a crumpled mass of concrete and twisted metal on Sunday morning, the result of “a 7.1 earthquake” in the North, a disaster of biblical proportions simulated by the army, police and paramedics.
This week’s drills are meant to test responses to a disaster causing thousands of fatalities and tens of thousands of injuries, and displacing more than a hundred thousand people.
The collapsed faux high school was the center-piece exercise on the first day of Turning Point 6, an annual nationwide drill designed to test the home front’s readiness for a natural disaster, or in terms more close to home, a massive missile and rocket attack on Israel’s vulnerable civilian core.
As in years past, if you were not serving in the IDF Home Front Command or the police, a journalist covering the exercises, or a civilian passing one of the simulations, you would have been hard-pressed to find any evidence of the nationwide drill.
The day began with an “earthquake” in Eilat followed by a larger one moments later in the North. Government offices took part in the drills, while schools on the coastal strip evacuated pupils to open areas as the simulated quake rattled the country and wrought a tsunami that sent 10-meter waves crashing onto the coast.
On north Ben-Yehuda Street near the port in Tel Aviv, a group of high school students made their way back from an evacuation spot on Ussishkin Street next to Hayarkon Park. A teacher said the students were taken to the spot because it was an open area, and have been instructed in the case of a tsunami to head for higher ground at Dizengoff Center.
As a catastrophic earthquake would likely cause a tsunami, it was unclear why students would be evacuated to the banks of the Hayarkon River, which would presumably rapidly flood surrounding streets, or whether or not Dizengoff Center would still be standing after the quake hit.
The confusion of that scenario was common during Sunday’s drills. In the North, the simulation included a post-earthquake tsunami flooding the area of Haifa Port, where presumably locals would be asked to flee to higher ground. At the same time, a tsunami could wreak havoc on Haifa’s chemical plants and send toxins out in the open where civilians would be instructed to gather.
When asked what to do in such a case, the head of the Home Front Command, Maj.- Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, said simply, “In the first phase [of an earthquake] we ask people to leave the buildings, but if we see there are leaks... of dangerous chemicals, we’ll give other instructions.”
He did not say whether people would be asked to go to underground bomb shelters to escape the toxins, at the same time the streets above are flooded by the tsunami.
Repeatedly during the drill in Jesse Cohen, leaders such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak talked about how the exercise would not only help prepare the country for an earthquake, but also for what Barak called “more practical scenarios, such as missiles falling on central Israel.”
A glancing look at that rationale leaves more questions than answers. While the evacuation of wounded civilians from a collapsed building would presumably be the same if it was felled by an earthquake or a missile, how could the instructions for the civilian population be the same? In an earthquake, as was repeatedly emphasized Sunday, the instruction would be for citizens to go outside, but if rockets are falling, civilians are supposed to run as quickly as possible for a safe room or a stairwell, assuming there is one nearby.
Regardless of how impressive some of the rescue personnel on the concrete piles may have been Sunday, the exercise begs the question: How many of the Israelis stuck inside those buildings would survive a quake? The great majority of homes in Israel were built before 1980, when earthquake codes were not in effect, and before the 1990-91 First Gulf War, when safe rooms were not mandatory in house construction.
This seemed apparent to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who, along with his comments on Iran about the importance of stiffer sanctions and a credible military threat, said Israel must find ways to increase “evacuation-rebuilding” (pinui binui) projects, to demolish and replace older buildings in neighborhoods like Jesse Cohen across the country.
Whether or not progress is made on such ambitious home front protection programs before Turning Point 7, without a massive, nationwide program to retrofit these buildings it is safe to assume that in the event of a powerful earthquake in a decaying neighborhood like Jesse Cohen, most of the buildings will pancake moments after the quake, giving many residents little chance of surviving.