Israel: We are Not Prepared for Major Earthquake

03/13/2011 17:30


As bad as events may seem in Japan in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake and tsunami killing untold thousands and causing critical failures at nuclear power plants, Prof. Avi Kirschenbaum, a disaster studies expert at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, thinks it could have been much worse.

If stringent building codes had not been enforced by authorities on the quake-prone island then the death toll could have been even higher.

“Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do when they fall,” he said. ”The tsunami is probably a lot more dangerous than the earthquakes, especially in Japan where building codes have been in place. You saw that big buildings did not fall during the earthquake, but you can’t build a wall along the entire sea.”

Kirschenbaum, who lectures about disaster preparedness at the university in Haifa and has written several books on the subject, said Japanese authorities’ preparedness mitigated the effects of the disaster. He had less flattering words, however, for their Israeli counterparts. Asked if Israel was ready to deal with a major earthquake, Kirschenbaum gave an unequivocal answer.

“I can tell you very clearly, we’re not,” he said. “The first things which need to be improved are the building codes –and the government understands that,” he said. “But the incentives to upgrade buildings by offering residents to build another floor and, in the process, strengthen their foundations are not working.”

Kirschenbaum, who currently heads BEMOSA, an EU-funded, wide research project aimed at improving security in airports, said that in the event of a seven or eight magnitude earthquake buildings built prior to the 1990s would be at great risk.

“During the 1980s there was a weak California building code but that disappeared during the 1990s,” he said.

The last relatively big earthquake in Israel took place in 2008 when a 5.3 magnitude quake shook the region. No fatalities or major damages were reported at the time. However, in the 19th century a major tumbler struck the region reducing the northern cities of Tiberius and Safed to rubble.

If a seven or eight magnitude quake were to impact Israel, Kirschenbaum reckons, it could cause more damage and result in more loss of life than any war Israel has ever fought.

“The chemical plants in the Haifa area which are on a rift coming down from Lebanon will probably blow up,” Kirschenbaum said. “It would be as if Hezbollah rained down on them all these rockets and it would simply blow up.”

The 68-year-old academic, who was born in the US and immigrated to Israel 40 years ago, said the Israeli government was also neglecting the psychological aspect of dealing with disasters.

“One of the things they are not preparing is the people,” he said. “In Japan they do it on the community level. The basis for our survival in Israel is our families and communities and then the municipality. All disasters in Israel are local and in Israel we have a robust system of communication which we have to rely on, and with the Japanese it’s the same way.”

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