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Surveying the Possibilities, Experts Say Israel Must Prepare for Disaster

December 29, 2005
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What’s the greatest threat to Israel today? It’s not Iranian nuclear weapons, according to one expert. In terms of potential loss of life and property, a natural disaster could be much more destructive than war — and Israel is unprepared for a mass disaster, Ephraim Laor, head of a Haifa University program on the geography of disaster areas, told JTA.

“It’s not a matter of budgets, but rather preparing yourself for the unknown,” Laor said. “It’s more convenient to talk about the Iranians than about the real dangers. If all Arabs mobilize all their air forces from Mauritania in the West to Iraq in the East, they will be less dangerous than terrorists blowing up one ship laden with ammonia in the Port of Haifa.”

Preparing the population for a massive catastrophe is mostly a matter of education.

“We need to teach the population and the decision makers how to act in time of disaster, ” reserve Brig. Gen. Arnon Ben-Ami told JTA. “Right now we don’t have a sufficient number of experts for this major challenge of education.”

Ben-Ami is acting chairman of the Defense Ministry’s Supreme Emergency Economy Board, which is in charge of preparing the economy for times of national emergency or disaster.

Ben-Ami called on Israel’s business community to help make Israeli citizens more aware by holding exercises, making preparations and conducting conferences about emergencies. The Education Ministry recently introduced a pilot program, training students from first grade to high school for a mass-disaster situation.

“Rescue work is not a science,” Ben-Ami said. “Rescue workers do not need to be construction engineers. Some things can be learned within a matter of hours.”

It was thanks to Ben-Ami that Haifa University introduced its program in the geography of disaster areas two years ago. At a recent symposium at the university, the scenario was presented of a terrorist takeover of a ship laden with dangerous chemicals.

Under the scenario, terrorists succeeded in taking over a large chemical carrier laden with deadly ammonia and blew it up in Haifa port. Scores were killed by the blast and toxic fumes, and hundreds were injured.

How prepared is Israel to deal with a mass tragedy like that? How can it prevent it?

“It’s a very possible scenario that can be prevented, but against which deployment is now very shallow,” Laor warned.

The government has established a special ministerial committee for earthquakes. An expert steering committee provides the ministers with professional guidance.

The Haifa program aims to establish the professional infrastructure to prepare the population, mostly through a trained task force at the municipal level. Some 51 students will conclude the first master’s program next year.

There are 150 such programs at universities in the United States, but Hurricane Katrina showed that even that is not necessarily enough.

“In the past I used to say that the U.S. is ready for unexpected disasters,” Laor said, “but 9/11, Katrina, Rita and Wilma have proven that it was not.”

It’s difficult to prepare for the unknown, but Israel is unprepared even for fairly common disasters such as earthquakes. That’s particularly alarming given Israel’s location on the Syrian-African Rift and on the Yagur Rift near Haifa, and because it has a history of earthquakes, having suffered at least one major earthquake every century.

Some 30,000 people died in an earthquake in 31 BCE. The town of Safed was almost totally destroyed in a 1831 earthquake that killed thousands. The last fatal earthquake in Israel was on July 1, 1927, and it left 300 dead, thousands wounded and considerable damage.

Four earthquakes have taken place in the past year, which geologists take as a sign that a major one is on the way. Experts say up to 16,000 could be killed, 90,000 injured and 400,000 left homeless by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in the next 50 years in the Jordan Valley or on Mt. Carmel.

Ben-Ami, Laor and their teams try to envision the worst possible catastrophes, but they insist that no matter how prepared the country is, a catastrophe will take it by surprise.

The assumption is that basic services would be paralyzed for the first three days after a catastrophe. Many emergency services also would be hit, while those that remain would be used to extend help to other emergency services, such as hospitals, electricity, food and water supplies.

One lesson Israel learned from the U.S. experience in Hurricane Katrina is that at a time of major catastrophe, the individual may be on his own for the first few days, without outside help.

Some Israelis contend that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government invested too much on anti-terrorism measures, neglecting natural disaster preparedness. Israel’s Supreme Emergency Economy unit recommends being prepared for various disasters.

“I’m trying to balance out the preparation for terror attacks, for a conventional war and natural disasters,” Ben-Ami said, “but in recent years I devote more energies to earthquakes, because the better prepared I am for an earthquake, the better prepared I will be for other potential disasters.”

Above all, it’s paramount that municipal leadership be prepared to set the emergency wheels in motion. If they fail, as happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, everything collapses.

“Israeli citizens have been accustomed to rely on the army and on the government to take care of all security problems,” Ben-Ami said. “One needs to educate them otherwise. The army cannot provide an answer to natural disasters or mass disasters.”

Laor suggested that Israel’s state of preparedness is improving: Buildings constructed after 1970 stand better chances in an earthquake, while others are being strengthened, particularly schools. But the challenges are overwhelming.

“We need more than $2 billion to reinforce all schools and at least $50 billion to reinforce all buildings in the entire country, but no such money exists,” he said. Israel’s entire national budget for next year will be around $60 billion.

So the race against time and its potential menaces continues. The challenge is to be better prepared when the catastrophe hits; the frustration is knowing that one can never be sufficiently prepared.

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