Awaiting the Big One

We are situated astride the Syrian-African Rift, where two tectonic plates rub against each other.

quake 88 (photo credit: )
quake 88
(photo credit: )
Our hearts go out to the people of China and Myanmar during this difficult period, and to their expatriates now working here in Israel. Natural disasters of mammoth proportions and their catastrophic consequences, like the devastating cyclone that ravaged large stretches of Myanmar (Burma) and the earthquake that brought tragedy to Sichuan province in China, inevitably inspire reflection about humanity's hubris. Images of devastation, displacement and desolation sear our souls. Yet, occasionally, compassion and empathy are confounded by inexplicable official heartlessness. In Myanmar the regime's hold on absolute power overrides the desperate plight of its own stricken people. That country's junta continues to callously hold up foreign aid and expertise - only minimal outside assistance has so far been allowed in - despite the fact that millions of lives are at risk. The UN estimates that the death toll could be more than 60,000. Some professionals have been admitted individually, but their inability to function in unison diminishes their effectiveness. Israeli teams with medical equipment and supplies were turned away. But we are gratified that an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee staffer is on the ground in Myanmar. The situation in China is more intricate. The confirmed death toll is 19,500, but there are fears those numbers could climb much higher. China welcomes help and assistance from the international community. It is also a major power and its army is engaged in earnest rescue efforts. Chinese leaders have been uncharacteristically candid and accessible in the face of this crisis. Despite its dismal civil liberties record, China isn't as closed off as Myanmar and grassroots grumblings of discontent do trickle out, most particularly about the shoddy construction of schoolhouses. Some of these collapsed and buried entire crammed classrooms. YET MISFORTUNES exacerbated by a given society's idiosyncratic circumstances mustn't breed smugness here. If anything, the two Asian disasters ought to remind us that we face menaces of our own which are, by and large, being routinely ignored. Perhaps it's natural to dwell on pressing crises and put off considering vague doomsday scenarios. It's the norm for governments to emphasize the immediate and spend their finite resources on the here and now. Indeed, the taxpayer expects administrative thrift - a clear disincentive for spending on unseen dangers. In Israel, however, frugality is not a friend of prudence. We are situated astride the Syrian-African Rift, where two tectonic plates rub against each other. The Dead Sea and Jordan valley are the physical manifestations of that rift. Geologists warn us to expect a major quake (above 7 on the Richter Scale) sometime within the next 50 years. It could happen any day and - if it were particularly destructive in magnitude - no part of the country would be safe. Committees aplenty have been set up and detailed recommendations compiled on how to shore up existing structures. The last significant quake occurred in 1927 (though it wasn't the "big one" predicted). The government must survey all existing older buildings and suggest to residents what can feasibly be done to quakeproof them. Individuals need to hear what steps they can take to prepare for the quake to come. But talk shouldn't be confused with action. And new building codes aren't enough, especially without guarantees they are being enforced. Neither is it any use to tell the public that structures built before the mid-'70s are most at risk. Government incentives to both householders and contractors - such as the new "Master Plan 38" (National Planning for Reinforcing Existing Housing Against Earthquakes) - deserve pushing ahead if they are doable. Even unavoidable calamities can be mitigated. Predictably, they tend to be worst where least care has been taken beforehand. Even dispensing practical advice and educational material costs money - to say nothing of retrofitting old structures. But it would probably be money well spent. Major quakes are approximately a once-in-a-millennium phenomenon here, and experts judge we are due one soon. We are now far more more densely populated than in 1033, when the last major earthquake struck this country. That makes us far more more vulnerable, our hi-tech lifestyle notwithstanding. Let's not pretend we have all the time in the world. Let's take our safety seriously.