Comptroller Warns of Major Earthquake Catastrophe

Israel earthquake
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira kept after the government on the issue of earthquake preparedness on Wednesday, with a report predicting that a major seismic event could result in upwards of 7,000 fatalities, unless drastic steps are taken.

The report comes after a series of recent minor tremors in the north, which b’chasdei Shamayim, caused no injuries and little damage, but served as a reminder that the country sits on the Syrian-African Rift and is vulnerable to serious earthquakes. Senior officials, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, promised multi-billion programs to correct the situation.

The comptroller’s report cited expert opinion that, given existing conditions, a major earthquake in Israel could result in 7,000 fatalities, 8,600 serious injuries, 37,000 people lightly injured, 9,500 people trapped in rubble and 170,000 made homeless.

Ministries and municipalities were faulted for foot-dragging in implementing necessary repairs and reinforcements of structures that would reduce loss of life and the extent of the destruction.

Of over 70 bridges assessed at high levels of seismic risk, only three have been reinforced. Of the 1,600 schools requiring reinforcement against earthquakes, only 50 have been reinforced so far, and only 200 were in the planning stages to be reinforced.

“Despite the Ministry of Education’s attempts to jump-start the reinforcement project in the local authorities, while allocating a dedicated budget and training engineers and contractors to carry out the work, to date, the minority of schools have been reinforced,” the report said.

“Since the implementation of the reinforcement depends on the local authorities and the Education Ministry does not have the authority to oblige them to implement it, full co-operation is required from all the relevant bodies, including the Education Ministry, the local authorities, the steering committee and the Interior Ministry.”

The ministry said in response: “The reinforcement of educational institutions against earthquakes is carried out in accordance with a government decision and guidelines of an inter-ministerial steering committee. In recent years, the ministries of Education and Finance have allocated NIS 360 million for the reinforcement of buildings.”

“A further 80 million NIS will be allocated for this issue in the coming year, and the ministry is co-operating with the local authorities in strengthening 256 schools which were classified as high-priority. The ministry continues to add schools for the reinforcement process, subject to a list established by the inter-ministerial steering committee.”
Vital infrastructure was also judged to be at an unacceptable level of risk. The country has only one natural gas line, and the national power grid could be badly disrupted in an earthquake.

Ben Gurion international Airport could suffer severe damage in a major earthquake. Hospitals and other health facilities were also at risk, as well as police stations, fire stations and MDA and IPS facilities, built before 1984, when building codes were upgraded to meet current standards of earthquake durability, the report said.

Knesset State Control Committee chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Camp) called the report a “resounding wake-up call, perhaps the last, before a disaster that will take thousands of lives. This is the sixth report by the comptroller dedicated exclusively to earthquakes – but the findings of the new report reveal zero action, operational failures and total abandonment,” she said.

Yachimovich announced a special discussion to be held next week with the participation of the head of the National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat.

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