Fundamentally Freund: Are Israel's schools earthquake-proof?

'If a strong one were to strike between 8 a.m. and 12 noon, we would lose an entire generation.'

classroom 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
classroom 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The scenes from China this past week, where a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan province, should serve as an important wake-up call for all Israelis. The May 12 tremor, which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, left tens of thousands of people dead, at least 245,000 others injured, and caused billions of dollars in damage. But perhaps the most chilling aspect of the disaster was the extent to which entire schools were flattened, crushing untold numbers of children and destroying families forever. According to China's state-run media, over 7,000 school buildings collapsed during the earthquake, burying countless students beneath the rubble. This was attributable, at least in part, to the faulty construction standards used in erecting the country's educational institutions. In the Chinese town of Wufu, a CNN crew discovered that the only building to come down during the quake was the local school. Over 200 children died as a result. Watching the terrifying images on television, a simple, yet highly troubling, thought occurred to me: what about Israel's schools? Are they sufficiently earthquake-proof to prevent a similar catastrophe from occurring here? As frightening as it might sound, the answer is a clear and unequivocal "no". Consider this disturbing assessment by Aharon Bin Nun, director of the Jerusalem Municipality's Public Buildings Department, delivered at a Knesset meeting held two months ago: "If a strong earthquake were to strike between 8 a.m. and 12 noon, we would lose an entire generation," he warned. The Education Ministry essentially concurs with this appraisal, admitting back in February that 45 percent of Israel's schools and kindergartens would face serious danger in the case of a powerful earthquake. THE PROBLEM is that many school buildings in this country were built decades ago, before the advent of stricter building codes. And as mass immigration unfolded, much of the construction was often done in haste, as communities struggled to meet sharply increased demand for more classrooms. It was only in 1975 that new building standards, which included more stringent provisions for earthquake-resistant measures, came into effect. So just about every public structure that went up before then almost certainly wasn't built with earthquakes in mind. And even if your child's school was built after 1975 - well, we all know that a law on the books doesn't always guarantee enforcement on the ground. The result is that there are an enormous number of public structures out there that might not withstand a major tremor. According to Dr. Ephraim Laor, who chaired Israel's national panel on earthquake preparedness, an estimated 400,000 buildings in this country were not built in accordance with the 1975 standards. These are said to include as many as 1,820 schools and 5,400 kindergartens. Quite simply, that means that tens of thousands of Israeli kids, and possibly even more, would be at risk if a major quake were to strike the area. AND DON'T fool yourself into thinking that we are immune to such nightmare scenarios. All the experts agree that it is not a question of if such a quake will hit, but when. In recent months alone, there have been a number of moderate earthquakes that have struck the region. On February 15, desks, chairs and tables shook across Israel when a quake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale hit. And from November to December 2007, a series of four medium tremors occurred within a span of just a few weeks. As geologist Dr. Daniel Wachs has pointed out three years ago, "In the region where Israel is located, a strong earthquake takes place on average every 80 years... It is now 80 years after the last intermediate quake in 1927 and 170 years after the last major quake in 1837. There seems to be very little sand remaining in the hourglass." Or, as the chairman of Lloyd's of London, the world's largest insurer, noted rather bluntly earlier this year, "Israel is at risk from an earthquake." This is scary stuff. The very thought of what might happen to our children, to thousands of Israeli kids, in the event of a major quake, should keep us up at night with worry. Obviously, we can not prevent an earthquake from taking place. But we can prepare for it, and thereby minimize the risk of calamity. Such measures might include reinforcing select buildings, such as schools, in various parts of the country so that they will be better equipped to withstand a major tremor. The government can and should devote budgetary resources each year to make this happen. And, of course, greater enforcement of existing building codes will help to ensure that future construction will be able to endure a nasty shake when it comes. IF YOU are concerned about this issue, and you darn well should be, here are a few simple things you can do to raise awareness. First, contact your local school and the municipality, and start asking tough questions about the safety of your child's school and its fitness to withstand a tremor. Contact the Ministries of Education and the Interior, and demand that steps be taken to forestall disaster. Money needs to be spent, and fast, to fortify and bolster school buildings, particularly in areas deemed most susceptible to earthquake activity. One school in the Jerusalem area has recently installed an innovative device developed at the Technion which essentially serves as a protective metal umbrella against falling debris for up to 40 students. The cost of the apparatus is 40,000 shekels, or just 1,000 shekels per student, which would surely come down significantly if the item were to be mass-produced. There are other potential solutions out there as well, but time is of the essence and there is not a moment to lose. If Israeli parents wish to forestall the horrors that befell thousands of innocent Chinese schoolchildren, then we must start pressing our bureaucracy to take action now, before it is too late.