INSS–Meir Elran and Alex Altshuler
October 31, 2012
On October 21-25, 2012, Israel held its first national exercise to examine how prepared the state and its institutions are for a severe earthquake. This was the country’s sixth home front exercise, held annually as part of the lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War. The annual exercise is also the climax of a series of smaller exercises held throughout the year. Until now, the annual exercises were based on security scenarios, primarily missile and rocket attacks on the civilian front.
The decision to devote this year’s scenario to an earthquake is notable, as it implies (a) recognition of the importance of preparing for natural disasters whose damage to life and property are expected to be much higher than those inflicted by war, terrorism, and other man-made conflicts; and (b) the adequate understanding that preparing for an emergency is essentially generic in nature, as many of its components are shared by man-made and natural disasters. Thus, preparedness for natural disasters in general and earthquakes in particular has a direct impact on the preparedness for the more familiar security scenarios.
The goal of the exercise was defined as “improving the integrated response and preparedness on the part of the home front organs and the population to manage a severe earthquake hitting Israel.” The exercise examined the response of municipal and national civilian and military units, infrastructure systems, and the population at large in the case of an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale, occurring at a depth of 10 kilometers in the Hula Valley area in the country’s northern region. According to the scenario, the quake also generated high sea waves (5-15 meters) along the coast, damaging the port of Haifa and the Reading power station in Tel Aviv.
According to the recently determined framework for emergency preparedness, which also served the concrete scenario for the exercise, the earthquake caused 7,000 fatalities (less than half of the past scenarios), 8,600 severely to moderately injured, 37,000 lightly wounded, 9,500 people trapped under rubble, 170,000 people displaced from their homes, 28,000 buildings with heavy damage, and severe disruptions to many critical infrastructures. The scope of the economic damage at the national level was estimated at a minimum of NIS 50 billion. The principal issues examined in the exercise were: command and control, continuous functioning, civilian services, evacuation, international assistance, and multi-stage rehabilitation. The specific objectives of the exercise were: raising the public awareness to the gravity of the challenge, validating the response strategies, examining future improvements to preparedness, and creating the conceptual basis for systemic post-disaster reconstruction.
There were several significant insights to emerge from the exercise, including:
After a long period of neglect, Israel has drawn a clear starting line for the systemic tackling of mass natural disasters. To what extent will the exercise generate a structured and effective system of preparedness that meets different needs, including the omnipresent security challenges? Hopefully, future deliberations will generate a more adequate balance between the commonly emphasized prevention posture of disasters and defense against them on the one hand, and what has been generally neglected, i.e., preparation for the day after, in the form of ensuring the sequential functioning and rehabilitation. To date, there has been little progress toward this much needed balance.