BEIRUT: Lebanon experienced a series of tremors over the weekend that prompted warnings by experts that the country remains unprepared for a future, major earthquake.
But the experts cautioned against a panicked response and rumors, saying scientists cannot predict with certainty when such an earthquake could occur, and adding that the weekend’s tremors were part of the normal cycle of seismic activity.
“It appears from the signs that we have now that this is the start of an earthquake crisis,” Mouin Hamzeh, the secretary-general of the National Council for Scientific Research, told The Daily Star.
“We don’t know if it will happen or if it will not happen,” he added, referring to the possibility of a larger earthquake. “We have to take precautions as much as possible.”
Six tremors were recorded between 12:41 a.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday. Two of the tremors, which registered at 4.1 and 3.5 on the Richter scale, were felt, whereas the rest were detected by seismological equipment and fell below 3-magnitude. Five tremors were the repercussions of the 4.1-magnitude earthquake, which hit Roum’s fault, affecting Iqlim al-Kharroub, Iqlim al-Tuffah and Beiteddine in Mount Lebanon.
At a news conference Sunday, Hamzeh explained the earthquake, which resulted from natural geological activities, was felt mostly in Sidon because it broke the ground there.
He called for the “highest precautions possible” against an identical earthquake that might hit the country soon.
Lebanon is crisscrossed by three major fault lines, along with other smaller ones. The Serghaya fault runs parallel to the border with Syria, while Yammouneh runs down the middle of the country. The third fault line runs mostly underwater and scientists fear a major tremor there can cause a tsunami.
The last major earthquake is estimated to have killed 40,000 people in 1759. Experts say the eastern Mediterranean region, spanning Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine is due for one or more major earthquakes, but say it is impossible to predict when they will occur.In 551 A.D., Beirut was largely destroyed by a major earthquake, estimated as a 7.6-magnitude, which also spawned a tsunami that caused widespread devastation along the eastern Mediterranean.
While Lebanon’s rocky geology can reduce the violence of earthquake tremors, its valleys and mountains increase the risk of landslides, and the soil under main urban centers makes their infrastructure susceptible to damage.
Hamzeh said residents should avoid locations that are particularly defenseless against earthquakes, including buildings that are vulnerable to collapse.
The government should also enforce building codes and enact “indefinite” precautionary measures that can help mitigate the impact of earthquakes, particularly since the region is geologically active.
“On the long term obviously we need to be working on this,” said Ata Elias, assistant professor at the American University of Beirut’s geology department, who has extensively studied seismic activity in Lebanon. “Not today, we should have been working on it for years now.”
Elias said the tremors were part of normal seismic activity in the country, which rarely exceeds 4-magnitude and occurs with low frequency.
But he said the country should increase its preparedness and resilience against a more powerful earthquake.
“We should not be worried about the magnitude 4s, that’s ridiculous,” he said. “We should be worried about the magnitude 6 and 7 that will hit the area, maybe soon, maybe tomorrow, maybe in 10 years.”
“As a country we are not ready to face a major earthquake,” he added.
Elias said the government has begun strengthening its capacity to face such a possibility, setting up a disaster management unit based in the Grand Serail with representatives from ministries and security forces, working to raise awareness, carry out drills and helping formulate disaster management plans.
But he said the country still had a lot to do, such as training civil defense recruits, enforcing earthquake building codes, improving the quality of workers, educating people on how to behave in an earthquake, improving urban planning and strengthening university engineering courses with modules on designing buildings that are resilient against earthquakes. “The list is long.”
Many residents of the southern city of Sidon evacuated their homes Saturday night, heading to the coasts and open areas in light of the tremors.
The shake destroyed the glass facades of many buildings in east Sidon, which instigated panic among locals.
“What has exhausted us is not the surveying or monitoring what is happening, but how to face the rumors that come up,” he said.
“In the short term the population should be aware of what to do in such a crisis,” he added. “And we should pray that we aren’t hit by the major one.”