Editorial: Quakeproof now

Earthquake hazards have been factored into Israel's building codes since 1976.

margala towers 88 298 AP (photo credit: )
margala towers 88 298 AP
(photo credit: )
Last week's Kashmiri earthquake produced a crazy quilt of surrealistically juxtaposed images. Some tall structures in Pakistan's Islamabad withstood the 7.6 Richter-scale jolt and remained upright, seemingly unscathed. Immediately next to them, however, lay prostrate the rubble of edifices of equal age, size and design. As the Indian subcontinent goes, much of Islamabad is quite a modern city. It boasts reinforced steel and poured concrete highrises of the sort that can be found throughout the first world, including here in Israel. Islamabad is hardly a ramshackle collection of mud-brick huts and precarious lean-tos. That's why pictures of collapsed apartment blocks of relatively recent construction ought to instill fear in all our hearts, particularly here. What in all likelihood predestined neighboring structures for different earthquake-resistance potential was not simply fate, but construction quality. Few dare dwell on this sinister quotient in our survival equation. Few of us can do much about it on our own, especially after the fact in older buildings. Earthquake hazards have been factored into Israel's building codes since 1976. Theoretically whatever was erected in the last three decades is likelier to withstand shocks, but that's assuming that all Israeli contractors rigorously followed every code to the letter, that building inspectors indeed inspected and if so did their job with a commitment and attention to critical details. Anyone whose attempt to hammer a nail into a wall resulted in a shower of sand may wonder if adherence to regulations was flawless. In the August 17, 1999 quake in western Turkey, buildings of a similar age and style as abound in Israeli cities crumbled. Though earthquakes are often thought of as natural disasters, their origin is natural but the extent of the disaster is more determined by human actions. Though it can be difficult to compare earthquakes in very different locations and terrain, it is still instructive that quakes of the same magnitude struck Iran in 2003 and San Francisco in 1989, and that the former cost 41,000 lives, the latter 63. Islamabad was 95 kilometers from the shallow epicenter. Many Israeli centers of population are much closer than that to the Jordan Valley, Arava and the Dead Sea, all physical manifestations of the seismically active Syrian-African Rift a fault line where two tectonic plates rub against each other. Two such grating plates in the Himalayas resulted in the Kashmiri disaster. When a quake measuring more than 6 on the Richter scale strikes and experts warn us to expect one greater than 7 sometime within the next half-century Israel's urban centers could be less distant than Islamabad was from its epicenter. These same much-ignored experts tell us that our quake could come any day. It might be of devastating magnitude and location, rendering no part of the country safe. Plenty of verbiage has been expended on this subject. Worthy committees deliberated, and detailed recommendations were drafted on how to shore up existing structures in preparation for the expected successor to the 1927 quake (which wasn't the big-one predicted). But talk and blueprints are no substitute for action. Building codes are meaningless without a proper mechanism to ensure they are strictly enforced. It's of no use whatever to tell the populace that pre-1976 dwellings are riskiest. There are no official building surveys to even suggest to residents how to quakeproof them not that quakeproofing is feasible and reasonably affordable for private citizens. Dispensing more than advice costs money, anyway unavailable for ostensibly more pressing needs than the once-in-a-millennium Syrian-African “big one.” But this country is incomparably more densely populated than in 1033, when the last big one struck here, and that makes us incomparably more vulnerable. We cannot prevent disaster but we can determine how prepared we are especially the military, rescue forces and first-responders. The less left to chance, the more our chances improve. It is not too soon to follow the lead of other earthquake-prone places, such as California, which have extensive programs and financial incentives to encourage quake-proofing, and which take building regulations more seriously. If we don't, the inevitable post-quake commissions of inquiry will not bring back the lives unnecessarily lost.