My Word: On shaky ground

A series of earthquakes has rocked the country recently, rattling residents and shaking the dust off many old reports on the need to be prepared for The Big One.

The last major earthquake, a 6.25 magnitude whopper whose epicenter was in the northern Dead Sea region, struck in 1927 causing hundreds of fatalities and massive destruction in Tiberias, Jericho, Nablus, Hebron and Jerusalem among other places. The deaths and devastation of the 1927 “Jericho earthquake” and the “Safed earthquake” of 1837 are still spoken of with awe, but too many people treat them as history rather than a warning of what could happen in the too-close-for-comfort future.

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The recent tremors, measuring up to 4.5 on the Richter scale, struck mainly around Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and acted as (another) wake-up call to the authorities which responded as authorities do by calling emergency meetings and casting blame and responsibility from one party to another. It’s nobody’s fault that we’re sitting on a major fault line, but we can’t afford to ignore what it means to be situated along the Syrian-African Rift in terms of both budget and planning requirements.

Deputy Minister of Housing and Construction Jackie Levy told The Jerusalem Post’s Tamara Zieve on July 9 that 80,000 buildings in Israel are in danger of collapsing in a serious earthquake. His ministry has prepared a five-year plan, together with the Finance Ministry, but it only relates to buildings in the highest risk zone. Private projects for reinforcing or razing and reconstructing buildings, popularly known as TAMA 38, are not usually financially attractive in high-risk but “peripheral” areas such as Beit She’an.

I was reminded of the many meetings I covered on the subject as The Jerusalem Post’s environment reporter in the 1990s.
The spokesman of the IDF Home Front Command said in various interviews this week that among the steps the unit had taken is preparing 10th graders in the basics of search-and-recovery operations.Apart from anything else, that allows the youths to feel in control – always a good thing in an emergency situation.

The Home Front Command has also refreshed instructions on what to do in the event of an earthquake: Try to go outdoors, away from trees and electricity lines; or failing that, go to a rocket-proof shelter – leaving the door open – or stand in the stairwell of a building; or take cover under a piece of heavy furniture.

There is a peculiarly Israeli problem with these directives. More used to wars than natural disasters, Israeli children learn from a young age not to go outside in an emergency situation and to close the doors of shelters and safe rooms. There are regular drills for earthquake response as well as rocket attacks, but the necessary actions are conflicting.
The latest tremors are a reminder of how good Israel is at handling emergencies rather than preventing them. Safety is security’s less favored sibling.

Israel responds to disasters everywhere by naturally offering help. Israelis were on the scene this week, as the world came together to pray for the safe recovery of the 12 members of the Wild Boar football team and their coach trapped for two weeks in a labyrinth of caves. Israeli company Maxtech Networks provided the initial communication system capable of relaying messages in the subterranean warren and Israeli divers provided support to the courageous team who went in to extricate the boys.

IDF Home Front Command search-and-rescue teams, along with NGOs such as ZAKA and IsraAID, have rushed to many post-earthquake missions in places including Haiti, Nepal, Turkey, Armenia and Mexico. In May, they went to Guatemala, struggling with the devastating volcanic eruption, and this week they were helping in the floods in Japan.

The talmudic precept “whoever saves one life, it is as if they have saved the whole world” is well-known. “Venishmartem meod lenafshoteichem,” the biblical command to carefully protect your lives, is no less important.

The first time I felt the earth move was unforgettable. I was lying in bed in the Hebrew University dorms on Mount Scopus, relatively close to the epicenter in the Dead Sea area. The room shook so badly that water from the fish tank on the shelf above me splashed out. An earthquake novice, I nonetheless quickly realized that having a glass aquarium above where I slept was not a good idea. My goldfish, incidentally, instinctively lay still at the bottom of the tank for hours. This week, fishermen in Tiberias complained that the fish in Lake Kinneret had reacted so badly to the tremors that their livelihood had been affected.

Two years ago, while visiting an earthquake-prone zone in Taiwan, I was woken by a serious tremor, more than 5 on the Richter scale. I felt queasy as the hotel room and my stomach seemed to lurch in different directions. The hotel was clearly built to a high earthquake-resistant standard: There were no paintings on the wall above the bed; the door was heavy metal and had an old-fashioned key rather than an electronic card; and I realized that the low-ceilinged passage between the bathroom and the closets was reinforced. New building codes were drawn up in Taiwan after an earthquake in 1999 left nearly 2,500 dead.
It is no secret that older Israeli buildings, particularly those built from prefabricated blocks, on pillars or which have had supporting walls removed for a more modern open-plan look, are at risk. Iron beams could have rusted unseen under the plaster over the years.

At a Knesset meeting as far back as 1993, I reported the fears of engineers that even buildings constructed after the 1980s could be at risk because there was a lack of enforcement of the newer, stricter regulations. While contractors of public buildings come under greater scrutiny, others might be willing to take risks. “The smaller contractor might prefer to put the money into more ceramic tiles rather than stronger materials and better planning,” a Construction and Housing Ministry official told me at the time.

The Home Front Command and emergency services are well-prepared for disasters ranging from gas explosions to rocket attacks and earthquakes. But trying to prevent or limit the scope of a disaster is equally important.

Emergency services, hospitals and rescue teams themselves could be affected by a major earthquake. And I tremble to think of what could happen were an earthquake to strike a major fuel or gas depot.

As Zieve reported last week, since the disturbing findings of a 2016 report by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s Home-Front Readiness Subcommittee, which found that an estimated 7,000 people would be killed if Israel were to be struck by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, and 377,000 would be left homeless, several steps have been taken, including plans to upgrade seismic monitoring systems.

There is certainly more awareness than there was in the past about the potential lethal effect of a tsunami, a word most of us heard for the first time in December 2004, when more than 200,000 people were killed in countries around the Indian Ocean. Friends in Tel Aviv this week shared photos of the tsunami warning signs along the coast.
Being well-prepared for a natural disaster should be well within the scope of the Start-Up Nation which prides itself on its hi-tech and ingenuity.

Just this week, SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit organization, announced it would launch a lunar module on a SpaceX Falcon Rocket from Cape Canaveral in mid-December. It should land on the moon next February in a project funded by philanthropists Morris Kahn and Sheldon Adelson and the government.

It is time for an earthshaking conclusion: It would be absurd for the country to be able to land a spacecraft on the moon while not taking care that closer to home everything doesn’t come devastatingly tumbling down.

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