On Shaky Ground: Seismic Risk in Jerusalem

Every few years Israel experiences tremors as a result of high-magnitude earthquakes in nearby countries. While these tremors are mostly harmless, the Israeli Defense Ministry views a direct hit in Israel as an inevitability. Although it is impossible to determine when an earthquake might occur, there are many knowns about what effect one would have on the region and, specifically, in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is located about 25 kilometers from the Dead Sea Transform fault system, an area with a high seismic hazard. If an earthquake were to take place, Jerusalem would be affected. The question experts ask, however, is not whether a city will be affected, but rather how prepared a city is.

Preparedness is measured by way of a seismic risk assessment. Seismic risk refers to the probability that, in the event of an earthquake, catastrophic damage would occur, causing economic, social, and environmental damage.

According to a 1984 study by Wachs and Levitte, “although Jerusalem is often mentioned in connection with earthquakes, the resulting damage reported has always been slight.” They state that the 1927 Jericho earthquake, the most recent devastating earthquake in the region, did not greatly affect Jerusalem and that it was the area around the Mount of Olives that suffered the most due to landslides. The reason for this is the softer nature of the bedrock on which the mountain stands.

Upon expansion of the city in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, however, more neighborhoods were constructed on a bedrock of Senonian chalk, a material not dissimilar from that of the Mount of Olives, and those areas have since been at greater risk of destruction in the event of a catastrophic seismic event.

These risks mostly went ignored until 2005 when the National Outline Plan, or TAMA 38, was introduced. The plan acknowledged the danger posed by buildings constructed before 1980 and offered an attractive solution. Building residents could vote to undergo renovation, reinforcing their building’s foundations, adding elevators, improving infrastructure, and increasing the size of their apartments, all while increasing the value of their homes and without having to pay taxes normally associated with projects of that scale. The companies responsible for completing the work are allowed to add more apartments to the structure and profit from their sale.

Despite the benefits of TAMA 38, buildings in Jerusalem have barely taken advantage of them through the years. A recent surge in project starts has been a positive step, but there are still thousands of apartments entangled in bureaucratic proceedings, being prevented from beginning the renovation process.

But there are steps that can be taken that are within your control. In case of an earthquake, the most important thing is to be prepared. Israel’s Home Front Command website offers a list of things citizens can do before, during, and after a seismic event.

(Header Photo Courtesy of US Library of Congress)

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