Israel's earthquake measures utterly inadequate

Home Front Command earthquake exercise photo: Yossi Zeliger

Last week's tremors in Tiberias are a reminder that a major earthquake in Israel is a question of when, not if.

It is a statistical commonplace that a major earthquake occurs in the Middle East every 80-100 years. If true, this means that we are now in a very hazardous time. The severe earthquake (6.6 on the Richter scale) that took place in 1837 destroyed Safed and Tiberias and killed 5,000 people according to the records. Exactly 90 years later, on July 11, 1927, another severe earthquake (6.25 on the Richter scale) occurred, killing 500 people. Last week, again in July, precisely 90 years after the last major earthquake, more than 30 earthquakes between 3 and 4.5 on the Richter scale were strongly felt around their epicenter near the city of Tiberias and to a lesser but definitely alarming extent in northern and central Israel.

The recent tremors again raise the question of whether Israel is prepared for a significant earthquake if and when it comes. According to the experts, the question is not whether an earthquake is expected in Israel, but when it will occur. While this question is unanswerable, the experts, backed by research, are warning that a string of small earthquakes often precedes a large one.

"The assessment in Israel is that a strong earthquake will damage 320,000 buildings. I think this is an underestimate," says Dr. Efraim Laor, cofounder and senior researcher at AFRAN - The National Research Institute for Disaster Reduction at the Holon Institute of Technology.

Israel has already decided that this threat should be addressed. According to the Ministry of Construction and Housing Urban Renewal Division, Israel has nearly 800,000 housing units that do not meet the standard for earthquake resistance, not counting hundreds of office buildings, public institutions, etc.

In order to attempt to cope with a possible earthquake in Israel, the government approved a national outline plan in 2005 for reinforcing buildings against earthquakes - National Outline Plan 38. The declared goal of the plan was to facilitate a mechanism for reinforcing buildings in Israel in the realization that preventative action would save casualties and reduce damage in an earthquake.

While National Outline Plan 38 was approved and began operating, however, it is accompanied by quite a few problems preventing large-scale reinforcement and demolition and reconstruction of buildings. The state's solution for reinforcing buildings under the plan is based on agreements between tenants and private developers in exchange for expansion of building rights. The plan is linked to the economic viability of the venture; in places where the project is not economically viable, there is no demand for it.

Engineers and people who took part in the formulation and approval of National Outline Plan 38 are now saying that while the plan expressed good intentions and has a worthy purpose, it is not meeting the test of reality and is missing its target. From a means of construction reinforcement, they say, it has turned into a tool for commercializing building rights and making profits. The bottom line, as of now, is that most old residential buildings have not been reinforced, and the same is true of office buildings and public buildings in Israel.

"We feel great concern among the public"

Let us begin with last week's earthquakes in the northern part of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). The earthquakes were most strongly felt in Tiberias, where the number of buildings that have been reinforced against earthquakes to date is negligible, something that is true of almost all the towns in Israel's outlying areas.

Tiberias municipal engineer Moti Lavi says that the issue is a sensitive one that the earthquakes have put even more in the spotlight. He adds, however, that it recently appears that contractors and developers are more willing to reinforce buildings in the town. "Late last week, after the earthquakes, the threat and danger of an earthquake became far more concrete. People have always spoken about it in theory, but now we definitely feel great concern among the public."

Lavi says that a survey conducted by the Ministry of the Interior a few years ago showed that of the 4,463 buildings in Tiberias, 2,092 were not earthquake resistant. "I've been here nine years," Lavi says. "Up until a year or two ago, it really wasn't economically worthwhile to utilize National Outline Plan 38 and it didn't happen. Over the past year, however, I've been seeing an increase in applications for a permit to implement National Outline Plan 38. It's apparently starting to become more worthwhile because the value of properties has risen. We're talking about demolition and reconstruction. There are already five permit applications and two permits that we have issued, and it's gathering steam. The numbers aren't big, but the trend is important, and the trend is towards more applications."

While the fact that there are more applications for permits and permits have been granted is encouraging, the number is still negligible in comparison with the number of buildings in need of reinforcement. The question arises what can be done to reinforce those buildings without waiting for many years. Lavi says, "Many possibilities have been discussed over the years. Maybe there should be an option to convert building rights from the outlying areas for high-demand areas. The Ministry of Construction and Housing is talking about a pilot and we talked with the minister about the subject, but nothing practical has happened yet. I think that the state should take action on the buildings and deal with all of them. They should invest public money and not wait for developers. Just as the state initiates other projects of public interest, here it has a responsibility to protect the public's safety."

Many sources in the sector believe that as of now, the existing solutions are not suitable for the outlying areas. They warn that for the foreseeable future, it does not appear that this situation will change.

Laor, who took an active part in designing the original National Outline Plan 38, admits that what is happening today is not exactly what was intended in 2005.

"Already at the beginning, we realized that there was a risk that in addition to reinforcement, there would be a lot of wheeler-dealers trying to divert the focus from the original purpose to real estate profits. We devised several preventative measures, but these were unfortunately dropped after the government approved the plan and before final approval. We had examples of a building that could be reinforced at a cost of NIS 160,000, but the same building also receives a proposal for additional space in apartments, an elevator, a new lobby, and many more things. Such a project already costs NIS 6 million.

"The first option can be carried out by itself and many can afford it. In practice, however, most people prefer the upgrade, for which they don't have to pay anything. That's what has been happening ever since, but that's not what National Outline Plan 38 was for. It wasn't designed for upgrading, but to make sure that people wouldn't die in old buildings in an earthquake."

The plan for disavowing government responsibility

The recent earthquakes again remind us how concrete the risk of a powerful earthquake in Israel is, but they also remind us of something about responsibility. The state's responsibility is to reinforce buildings that everyone knows are not earthquake resistant.

National Outline Plan 38, which began as a plan to reinforce buildings, willy-nilly became a real estate plan of which reinforcement is only a minor part. In practice, it is now nothing less than a plan for disavowing the government's responsibility for reinforcing buildings.

Leaving the reinforcement of buildings exclusively in the hands of the free market is resulting in a situation in which economic viability is almost completely confined to central Israel. There are a few cases of reinforcement and government initiatives in the outline areas, but they pale in comparison with the scope of the problem.

The concern about earthquakes makes substantial preparation mandatory. Everyone dealing with this problem says that correct preparation and taking preventative action will not only save lives, but also save the state a great deal of money following a major earthquake.

Reinforcement of buildings usually focuses on residential buildings, but no one can guarantee that an earthquake will take place at night. What about office buildings, educational institutions, and commercial centers? The tools for reinforcement of these buildings provided by National Outline Plan 38 are inadequate.

This is the time for the government to address the matter with appropriate seriousness, instead of putting the responsibility on homeowners and contractors. The residents of Tiberias and the north got a wake-up call last week. The shock waves from these earthquakes should also set off the warning bells in government ministries.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 9, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Home Front Command earthquake exercise photo: Yossi Zeliger
Home Front Command earthquake exercise photo: Yossi Zeliger
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