The next earthquake - in Israel?

Since we've sent search and rescue missions to disaster-stricken areas , one would assume that we, surely, would be primed for a similar event, right? Not exactly.

haiti idf hospital 311 (photo credit: E.B. Solomont)
haiti idf hospital 311
(photo credit: E.B. Solomont)
As I look through my living room window over the city of Jerusalem, I cannot help but think about those poor Haitians thousands of miles away and their destroyed world. I feel sorrow knowing that right now, as I write, there most likely are survivors trapped under the rubble with no way of escape, no way to communicate, no way to inform rescuers that they are alive.
Knowing the IDF Search and Rescue Unit, our soldiers are working tirelessly around the clock, refusing to sleep for fear that those few moments of rest would cost a victim his or her life.
But they can't rescue everyone. Manpower and equipment are limited, conditions are difficult and time is the enemy.
Yet it says in the Talmud that whoever saves a life saves an entire world. It is this value system that has driven Israel to send search and rescue missions to disaster-stricken nations in crisis such as Turkey, Greece, China, Argentina, Mexico, India, twice Kenya and now Haiti, incur large costs for funding such efforts and contribute our part to humanity.
One would assume then that Israel itself would surely be primed for a similar disaster, right? Well, not exactly.
It should be made clear that as far as emergency services for national disasters are concerned, Israel is quite prepared. It has the best trained, fastest mobilized search and rescue unit in the world, and foreign officers and soldiers from many different countries come here to train on our bases and learn our methods.
But emergency services are the last line of defense, the default option when all else fails. It is known that the best way to save lives and mitigate damage in the event of an earthquake is to prevent the buildings from collapsing in the first place. Faulty construction and lack of proper building codes are what cause tragic loss of life, not the earthquake itself. Had the buildings in Haiti been built to modern earthquake standards, there might be no need for search and rescue.
A PERFECT example of this can be seen in the contrast between the Haiti earthquake and the January 10 California quake just two days earlier. Although the Haiti earthquake was stronger, weighing in at 7.0 on the Richter scale while Californians "only" experienced a 6.5, California did not suffer any fatalities, as compared to the estimated 200,000 in Haiti. The reason is that California has the most advanced earthquake building code in the world, whereas Haiti has none.
Israel's earthquake safety building code (IC413) is very similar to that of California. The problem is that it only was created in 1975 and really only became standard practice in 1980. That means that the majority of buildings built before 1980 are similar to those buildings in Haiti that crumbled to the ground.
The government is aware of the danger that an earthquake of large magnitude poses to the population. Based on information gathered by the Israel Geophysical Institute and a special task group of engineers, a scenario projecting a 7.5 magnitude earthquake was presented to lawmakers. According to the estimate, an earthquake of this magnitude in Israel would cause approximately 16,000 fatalities and 90,000 injuries, and 377,000 people would be evacuated from their homes. In addition, the estimate foresees 10,000 fully collapsed buildings, 20,000 with heavy structural damage and more than 100,000 with minor to medium damage.
This of course is not considering the expected damage to the economy resulting from the destruction of infrastructure, public facilities, factories and commercial centers.
AS A response, the government initiated a nationwide program in 2005 called Tama 38 that offers tax and planning incentives to the private sector to reinforce buildings. But today, five years later, the program has proven highly ineffective. A bureaucratic labyrinth of red tape and an insufficient incentives package have jammed the cogs of the program, leaving less than 15 buildings reinforced in the entire country.
The last serious earthquake to hit Israel was in 1927 and measured 6.2 on the Richter scale. Five hundred people were killed, a small number compared to the devastation that will occur as a result of modern Israel's high population density. Moreover, the natural geophysical cycle produces a high-magnitude earthquake every 80 years on average, meaning that we are already overdue.
I hope that the government will learn from the terrible tragedy in Haiti and take more meaningful action to safeguard the citizens of Israel. It must, or the next search and rescue mission might be closer to home.
The writer is the co-founder and chairman of Fortress Group Ltd., a real estate development and consulting company that facilitates the implementation of Israeli public policy for earthquake disaster planning and structural reinforcement - He is also a reserve soldier in the IDF Search and Rescue Unit where he served as a commander and instructor.