Last Monday, a powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake followed by equally powerful aftershocks, devastated 10 cities in Turkey and northern Syria, toppling buildings, killing some 30,000 people as of Sunday, injuring many thousands more and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. The chairman of the Knesset’s Interior Affairs and Environment Committee Yakov Asher called an emergency meeting to examine the state of readiness to deal with the crisis. The quake was also felt in some parts of Israel, though no damage or injuries were reported and herein lies the problem.
Israel has indeed prepared for the aftermath of the earthquake. The Israel search and rescue teams are amongst the best in the world. Dr. Mati Adan, head of the Civil Engineering Department at Ariel University, has trained 2,000 engineers to assess the damage to buildings after an earthquake. The National Steering Committee for Earthquake Preparedness and the Civil Defense has performed training exercises and has promulgated instructions on what to do and how to prepare.
In 1994, the largest metropolitan area in California was hit by a 6.8 earthquake. Due to resonance, which means the shock wave bounced back like waves at the sea, parts of Los Angeles were hit with 9.0-10.0 Richer earthquakes. With all that, only 56 people were killed and the city came back to life in three days.
The answer as to why the loss of lives was minimal was that the City of Los Angeles promulgated a strict building code. With this, they forced the owners of older buildings to upgrade their properties to comply with the code and their Building and Safety Departments strictly enforced the code. The result was that countless lives were saved along with most of the structures.
Israel's older buildings are sitting ducks in an earthquake
While Israel finally issued a serious earthquake standard for new construction in 1988 (Standard 413), the older buildings in many areas such as Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, Petah Tikva, etc., which often sit on skinny columns on the ground floor (known as a soft or weak story), are sitting ducks in an earthquake.
For the government to make declarations that there was no damage in the current shaking is wrong, dangerous and misleads the public. The old concrete columns may well have been damaged, cracked or weakened by the shaking, which means another earthquake or other nearby disturbances could throw the building down with a consequential loss of life. The fact of the matter is all old buildings in Israel need to be checked immediately by the cadre of 2,000 trained engineers that are already in place. Buildings that are found to be damaged by this earthquake or in the past, need to be flagged as dangerous, repaired immediately, or evacuated.
Then, all old buildings, with the typical soft story, can be strengthened for small money based on simple engineering solutions. As happened in California, the Knesset can force property owners to take responsibility to repair their properties by making low-cost loans available and discounting property taxes during the construction rehabilitation. It is time for our government to wake up and not just hold meetings that will accomplish nothing. We have it in our hands to save lives.
The writer is a senior structural engineer in Israel and California, a certified earthquake inspector by the California Office of Emergency Services and a past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers in Israel.