My Word: Shaken up by earthquakes

The earthquakes in Turkey and Syria are a warning that Israel needs to prepare.

 MEMBERS OF the IDF rescue mission are seen near the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras on Wednesday.  (photo credit: ERIK MARMOR/FLASH90)
MEMBERS OF the IDF rescue mission are seen near the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras on Wednesday.
(photo credit: ERIK MARMOR/FLASH90)

The heartbreaking images coming from Turkey and Syria this week were impossible to ignore. The survivors of the massive earthquakes shared the same haunted look. Even the children – too young to know what they had lost and that their loss would accompany them for the rest of their lives – stared with the same glazed, traumatized eyes.

Israel, like many other countries, rushed to send search and rescue teams, medical personnel, and equipment to establish a field hospital and provide other assistance. “Israel’s always the first to help. We really appreciate it,” a Turkish friend whatsapped me after several hours in which I had worried about her fate on Monday, February 6.

The Israeli government also immediately offered humanitarian aid to Syria, a country that has never renounced its hostility toward the Jewish state. The scope of the disaster served as a leveler. Natural disasters don’t stop at artificial borders and neither should the assistance. 

Beyond humanitarian aid, it would be wonderful if one day Israel and its neighbors in Lebanon and Syria could openly share lifesaving technology and information.

Israel needs to prepare

The 7.5 magnitude quakes that struck Turkey and Syria to the north were felt in Israel too. It was a ripple effect that should serve as a warning. Israel should not only be rattled by what happened in Turkey and Syria – where the combined death toll has passed the 12,000 mark – it needs to take action. 

Experts talking to the local media this week stressed that it’s not a matter of “if” Israel is heading for The Big One, but a question of “when” it will happen. It’s unsettling to say the least.

While Israel is always ready and willing to drop everything and rush to the scene of a natural disaster, it is less prepared to tackle a large-scale catastrophe at home. But here, too, particularly along the Jordan Valley, part of the Great Rift Valley, communities have been built on shaky ground.

I first covered Israel’s lack of earthquake preparedness as an environment reporter in the early 1990s. The dust has periodically been shaken off the reports that warn of disaster – usually when tremors hit close to home – but the country still needs to do a lot more regarding construction, rescue services and recovery programs. Insurance companies quaintly refer to natural disasters as “acts of God” but mortals can take measures to reduce the devastation and loss of life.

In 2016, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was presented with a scenario in which an earthquake in Israel would kill 7,000 people, seriously injure 8,600, destroy 28,600 buildings, cause damage to another 290,000 buildings, and leave 170,000 people homeless.

The National Emergency Authority (RAHEL) has estimated that some 80,000 homes are at high risk in the event of an earthquake – mainly buildings built before regulations requiring earthquake-resistant standards came into force in the mid-1980s.

Emergency services, hospitals and rescue teams themselves could be affected by a major earthquake, along with essential infrastructure. And I tremble to think what could happen were a quake to strike a major fuel or gas depot. Even the gas pipes that run under roads and residential buildings present a hidden but a very real danger.

Mapping the sites most at risk does not in itself solve the problem. Concrete action has to be taken. Existing structures need to be reinforced. From Kiryat Shmona in the North, to Eilat in the South, via towns like Tiberias, Afula, and Beit She’an among others, the risks are particularly high. And it’s not only apartment buildings that could collapse; older public buildings such as schools and hospitals were not constructed in accordance with modern protective standards. 

It is not enough to draw up regulations, they need to be enforced. Tragically, the reports coming out of Turkey suggest that some buildings were toppled not so much by the earthquake as by corruption – building contractors who cut corners when it came to expensive safety measures. 

Private projects in Israel for reinforcing or razing and reconstructing buildings, popularly known as TAMA 38, are not usually financially attractive in high-risk but “peripheral” areas, but they are essential. The government needs to understand the price that will be paid for ignoring this fact. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week instructed National Security Council Director Tzachi Hanegbi to assess Israel’s preparedness (or lack thereof) and the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee chairman Yakov Asher has called an urgent meeting on the matter.

Knesset State Control Committee chairman MK Mickey Levy this week said: “There is no coordination today between the government ministries regarding preparations for earthquakes. Every city engineer decides the criteria for themselves... The central government shifts the issue to the local authorities because it’s very easy and there’s no money. I have demanded the urgent establishment of a government fund.”

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman told a group of 12th-graders visiting his office: “Instead of waiting for a commission of inquiry after a disaster, the government should act on pre-disaster preparedness.” 

THERE HAS been friction, geophysical and physical, in these parts since time immemorial. The spectacular scenery of the Rift Valley marks the frontlines of an area where over millennia, tectonic plates have caused geological upheavals. The ruins of Beit She’an, Tiberias, Safed and Caesarea, among other places, are testimony of the subterranean turbulence. 

A 6.25 magnitude earthquake struck in 1927. From its epicenter in the northern Dead Sea region, it caused hundreds of fatalities and massive destruction in Jericho, Tiberias, Nablus, Hebron, Jerusalem and elsewhere. The 1927 “Jericho earthquake” and the “Safed earthquake” of 1837 are too often treated as history rather than a warning of what could happen in the too-close-for-comfort future. 

There is evidence of an earthquake in the Second Temple period, in 31 BCE, in which some 30,000 people perished. The death toll today, when the country has a population of more than 9 million and large cities with skyscrapers could be much higher. A 7.23 magnitude whopper of a quake occurred in November 1995, but with an epicenter 100 km. south of Eilat, it was forgotten almost as soon as the dust had settled on the southern resort.

Last February, the Geological Survey of Israel unveiled cutting-edge technology capable of sensing the first signs of a quake, allowing the Home Front Command to send out an alert within 10 seconds. The system was given the name, TRUAA, purposefully echoing the shofar’s wake-up call.

It is hard to prepare the public for an emergency situation without spreading counterproductive panic. There is no need to hide under the table with your hands on your head – unless you actually feel tremors as you read this. There are positive steps everyone can take. This week, the IDF Home Front Command and Israel Police reissued safety guidelines. Try to go outdoors, away from trees and electricity lines; or failing that, go to a rocket-proof shelter – leaving the door open – or stand in the stairwell of a building; or, as a last resort, take cover under a piece of heavy furniture in an inner corner of the room and protect your head with your hands, the IDF advises.

Those in a vehicle should park at the side of the road and wait inside until the earthquake stops – avoid stopping under a bridge or at an interchange.

Stay at least one kilometer away from the beach in case there is a tsunami and head for high ground.

At home, make sure shelves, paintings and other heavy objects are firmly fixed to the wall; prepare emergency supplies of bottled water, canned food, an old-fashioned battery operated transistor radio; flashlights; spare batteries; and warm clothing.

It’s nobody’s fault that we’re sitting on a major fault line, but we can’t afford to ignore what it means in terms of both budget and planning requirements. “Venishmartem meod lenafshoteichem,” the biblical command to carefully protect our own lives, is no less important than the talmudic precept “Whoever saves one life, it is as if they have saved the entire world.”

We can’t stop earthquakes occurring but we can prevent some of their earth-shattering results. It’s the lack of readiness that leaves me quaking.