An earthquake hits  the  region  roughly  once  a  century  but  buildings  constructed  before 1982  are  not  up  to  legal  standards  -­-­  and  this  is  being  rectified  chiefly  in  places  that  need it  less.

The  earthquake  that  killed  thousands  in  Nepal  last  Saturday  is  a  potent  reminder  of  how  important  it  is  for  a nation  to  adequately  prepare  for  natural  disasters  –  and  experts  warn  that  Israel’s  infrastructure  is  solely lacking  in  this  respect.

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In  the  wake  of  the  images  of  destruction  and  devastation  coming  out  of  Nepal,  the  question  once  again arises:  What  would  have  happened  if  an  earthquake  struck  Israel  today?

In  2011,  the  state  comptroller  released  a  report  alerting  on  a  possible  disaster  that  could  claim  the  lives  of some  15,000  people  and  cause  the  collapse  of  hundreds  of  thousands  of  structures.

Over  the  past  1000  years,  there  were  eight  strong  earthquakes  in  the  area,  most  of  them  6-­6.6  on  the  Richter scale.

“They  happened  in  a  cycle  of  one  every  100  years,”  said  Prof.  Moshe  Inbar,  an  expert  on  natural  disasters from  Haifa  University.  “These  weren’t  quakes  like  the  one  in  Nepal,  and  still  they  claimed  thousands  of  lives. In  1995  there  was  a  7-­magnitude  earthquake  in  the  depths  of  the  Dead  Sea,  over  100  km  from  Eilat,  and  the city  still  experienced  damage.  If  such  a  quake  hits  inside  the  borders  of  the  State  of  Israel,  the  damage  could be  much  greater.”

The  testimony  of  a  resident  of  Tiberias  from  the  earthquake  that  destroyed  the  city  in  1837  paints  a  picture  of the  utter  destruction  previously  experienced  in  the  area.

“The  ground  moved  under  me.  Pieces  of  rocks  rolled  down  the  mountains.  Full  of  fear,  I  looked  at  the  city below,  where  my  most  dear  were  -­  my  husband  and  children.  Dear  God!  I  never  got  to  see  them  again!  I looked  at  the  city  walls,  cracks  created  in  them.  Everything  moved  back  and  forth.  I  could  not  see  a  thing except  for  a  thick  and  dark  dust  cloud  that  covered  the  entire  city.  Then,  I  heard  a  sound  like  thunder,  and screams  and  cries  of  horror  from  the  mouths  of  thousands.”

“I  fainted,  falling  to  the  ground.  While  the  cracks  in  the  city  wall  broke,  panicked  residents  carrying  some  of their  property,  or  their  wounded  relatives,  or  the  body  of  a  shattered  man,  also  broke  free.  The  entire  city  was in  ruins.  I  worked  all  night  to  roll  the  rocks  off  the  corpses  of  my  children.  My  fingers  were  bloodied.  No  one helped  me.”

The  earthquake  in  Tiberias  and  Safed,  which  was  6.6-­magnitude  on  the  Richter  scale,  happened  at  5  pm  on Sunday,  January  1,  1837.

A  devastating  earthquake  in  our  region  can  only  occur  along  the  East  African  Rift,  but  it’s  hard  to  predict  the outcome  of  such  a  quake  as  the  amount  of  damage  depends  on  construction  standards.

A  construction  bill  meant  to  address  to  such  a  scenario  was  passed  in  1980,  but  only  started  being  enforced two  years  later.

According  to  the  Construction  Ministry,  there  are  some  810,000  housing  units  that  are  not  up  to  the  standard set  in  the  1980  legislation.

“You  can  say  anything  built  after  that  is  okay,”  Prof.  Inbar  explained.  “The  problem  is  there  is  older construction  in  areas  and  cities  close  to  the  East  Africa  Rift:  In  the  lower  areas  of  Tiberias,  in  Beit  She’an,  in areas  of  Safed  not  built  on  rocks,  in  Kiryat  Shmona  and  of  course  in  Eilat.  The  situation  in  Eilat  is  even  more concerning  because  the  hotels  area  is  built  on  alluvium  soil,  the  kind  that  increases  Seismic  waves.”

As  terrifying  as  that  sounds,  Prof.  Inbar  is  actually  one  of  the  optimists  among  the  experts  regarding  the chances of rehabilitation  following  an  earthquake,  despite  the  devastating  damage  they  leave  behind.

On  the  other  hand,  other  experts  dealing  with  population  behavior  and  ways  of  handling  populations  after natural  disasters  warn  that  Israel  is  not  prepared  to  handle  a  disaster  of  catastrophic  scale.

“It’s  all  a  matter  of  resources,”  explained  Prof.  Avi  Kirshenbaum,  an  expert  in  disaster  management  from  the Haifa  University.  “How  many  ambulances  are  in  each  city?  How  many  firefighters?  How  many  scenes  can they  handle  at  the  same  time?  And  if  the  injured  are  evacuated  to  hospital,  who  will  treat  them?  Can  medical teams  even  reach  hospitals?  It’s  an  event  on  a  scale  no  one  in  Israel  understands.

“Our  numbers  indicate  that  at  6-­magnitude  earthquake,  some  90  percent  of  structures  in  the  country  not  built according  to  the  1980  legislation  will  collapse.  These  are  the  massive  train  structures  built  in  the  fifties  and structures  built  in  the  seventies  on  pillars.  Hundreds  of  thousands  of  people  live  in  these  structures.

“Imagine  the  massive  amount  of  casualties  on  the  streets,  that  could  not  be  identified,  evacuated  or  buried  in the  first  stage,  or  the  massive  number  of  injured  who  will  have  no  one  to  treat  them.  Water,  electricity,  sewage and  gas  infrastructure  would  also  collapse,  not  to  mention  communication  infrastructure.  The  main  problem, as  I  see  it,  would  be  the  water  supply.”

“The  bottom  and  only  line  in  dealing  with  such  an  event,  and  we  need  to  internalize  this,  is  every  man  for himself.  No  one  will  come  to  help  us.  There’s  no  one  to  count  on  at  least  in  the  first  three  days  after  the disaster,  and  even  then  the  Home  Front  Command  would  not  be  able  to  reach  any  point  and  any  site  of wreckage.  Even  the  Home  Front  Command  has  realized  and  admitted  this,  and  has  begun  training  people  in communities  and  local  forces  to  deal  with  destruction  and  with  immediate  search  and  rescue.”

In  tandem  with  Dr.  Carmit  Rappaport,  coordinator  of  Haifa  University’s  Emergency  and  Disaster  Management Program,  and  Professor  Dafna  Canetti  of  the  university’s  School  of  Political  Science,  Kirschenbaum  recently held  a  survey  showing  that  more  than  50  per  cent  of  Israelis  feel  they  lack  the  knowledge  and  tools  to  handle an  earthquake  scenario.  About  60  per  cent  of  the  public  feels  that  authorities  are  only  partly  capable  of dealing  with  such  a  catastrophe.

The  study  found  that  citizens  who  have  been  exposed  to  terrorist  incidents  or  rocket  fire  feel  much  more prepared.  “They  have  prepared  bags,  equipment,  checked  the  state  of  their  homes  and  so  on,”  said  Professor Canetti.

“Even  if  damage  is  repaired,  and  that  will  take  several  years,  the  difficult  experiences  will  not  allow  people  to return  to  something  called  a  routine,”  said  Professor  Kirschenbaum.

Safed  Mayor  Ilan  Shohat,  whose  city  has  twice  been  damaged  by  serious  earthquakes  in  past  centuries  that killed  thousands,  recently  voiced  his  concern  about  another  destructive  earthquake.  “I  haven’t  slept  night  for several  nights  in  light  of  the  images  from  Nepal,”  he  said.  “Statistics  are  not  in  our  favor,  and  if,  heaven  forbid, something  like  this  happens  in  our  area  –  the  sights  will  be  no  less  difficult.”

The  mayor  noted  that  the  city  was  built  upon  layers  of  rubble.  He  warned  that  the  city  was  not  prepared  to meet  the  threat  of  a  major  disaster.

“We  do  not  have  enough  equipment  and  supplies  to  function  independently  for  a  week  without  communication with  the  outside  world,”  said  Shohat.

Shohat  successfully  proposed  to  send  mayors  and  defense  officers  in  the  next  mission  to  Nepal,  in  order  to implant  awareness  of  earthquake  conditions.  “We  haven’t  experienced  it,  it’s  all  on  paper.  To  experience  it physically  is  a  very  important  element  of  being  prepared,”  he  said.

Hospitals  in  the  north  are  a  weak  point  in  the  earthquake  response  system.  A  2011  state  comptroller  report laid  out  a  series  of  defects  that  could  cause  some  of  them  to  collapse  in  the  event  of  a  severe  quake.

National  outline  plan  38  –  an  overarching  plan  to  bolster  existing  structures  against  earthquakes  –  suffers from  obstacles  and  wide-­ranging  problems,  not  least  the  fact  that  it’s  mainly  implemented  in  central  Israel rather  than  closer  to  the  East  African  Rift.”

“An  earthquake  is  not  a  catastrophe,”  explained  Col.  (Res.)  Hilik  Sofer,  an  expert  on  earthquakes  and  national outline  plan  38.  “What  turns  the  quake  into  a  catastrophe  is  how  we  build  our  homes  and  infrastructure.”  The state,  he  said,  has  left  implementation  of  the  plan  to  the  inhabitants.  “Essentially  those  who  set  the  tone  are the  contractors  and  developers.  And  where  do  they  go?  Where  there’s  the  most  profit:  Tel  Aviv,  Givatayim, central  Israel.

Tel  Aviv  Mayor  Ron  Huldai  spoke  out  against  plan  38  in  April,  saying  it  was  “a  plan  born  in  sin”  and  that  it should  be  implemented  in  areas  that  are  at  risk,  along  the  East  African  Rift.  “The  plan  is  a  gift  to  the  rich  at the  expense  of  the  poor.”