Storm of Criticism as Emergency Services Collapse During Heaviest Snow in Years
Three days after a massive snowstorm began to grip Yerushalayim and parts of northern Israel in a cold, white siege, nearly 20,000 people were still without power on Sunday evening, and the inevitable questions about the failure of emergency services to cope with the weather were being angrily raised.
Not since the disastrous Carmel fire of December 2010 have Israeli emergency services collapsed on such a scale. While the loss of life in this year’s snowstorm did not approach the toll of 44 dead in the fire, the extent of suffering, which left so many without electricity, stranded overnight on roads in freezing weather or cut off in their homes, was catastrophic.
Since Thursday night, when the storm began dumping an estimated foot and a half of snow on Yerushalayim, some 60,000 households were disconnected at some time or other, according to the Israel Electric Corporation, which has borne the brunt of citizens’ complaints.
Magen Dovid Adom received over 10,000 calls for assistance, of them 8,829 from Yerushalayim alone, and 313 for child births. Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said that the police Emergency Center had received some 70,000 calls since the storm landed Thursday evening.
Thousands were trapped overnight in a nightmare traffic jam as police closed Highways 1 and 443 to Yerushalayim after motorists, already on the routes, failed to reach the capital before access was cut off Thursday night. They were left in the frigid weather without relief as food and gas gradually ran out.
Only as Shabbos departed did the extent of the breakdown become evident.
“It is obvious that the Israeli government did not anticipate the size of the storm and its results,” head of the subcommittee for Homefront Readiness, MK Eli Yishai, said. “It is [the government’s] obligation to be ready for the forces of nature, particularly considering we are only at the beginning of winter.”
The committee will investigate and make recommendations on how to improve Israel’s readiness for such storms in the future, Yishai said.
United Torah Judaism MK Rabbi Yisrael Eichler called for a parliamentary inquiry into what he called “the total failure of the emergency system.” Otherwise, he warned, “the government will paper it over and then, when a real disaster strikes, like the Carmel fire, everyone will apologize.”
Hamodia’s senior correspondent A. Pe’er described how the heads of the government discovered the plight in which the citizens found themselves:
The prime minister’s bureau made a few random calls on Motzoei Shabbos to residences in Yerushalayim to hear first-hand how people were handling the storm. The second phone call told the whole story.
“Hello, what’s happening with you?” asked the cheery voice in the prime minister’s bureau.
“The situation is simple,” came the response. “Outside it’s white and inside it’s darker than dark. Since 1948 we haven’t experienced a winter Shabbos like this one. No light, no heat, no challos, no dairy products. There are torn electric cables dangling right near the house; it’s dangerous to let the children outside. And inside the house, everyone is freezing.
“Do something!” the woman cried out in heartfelt pain. Her plea, summing up the feelings of many, pointed to the enormity of the government’s failure.
Due to the storm, dozens of people were unable to bring their deceased loved ones to burial. One family called the chevrah kaddisha and was told: “If you can bring your deceased mother to Har Hamenuchos, we’ll send two gravediggers who will bury her with the help of family members.” But by then the roads were blocked and the entire city had come to a standstill.
The police were helpless. Their vans traveled the streets aimlessly, unable to evacuate cars stuck on the road or clear a path to Yerushalayim. Switchboards at hospitals and Magen David Adom were overwhelmed with thousands of calls. These agencies also didn’t appear ready for the onslaught.
But there seemed to be a curious disconnect between the plight of the people and their leaders.
During the press conference held by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Mayor Barkat and other high officials on Motzoei Shabbos, the jocular atmosphere which prevailed, with laughter more than once interrupting proceedings, was received by still-snowbound residents of the capital with little mirth.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) took the opportunity to criticize Netanyahu for holding a press conference on the storm, instead of taking immediate action to clear the snow and reconnect power lines.
It was “unfortunate that while thousands of people still don’t have electricity, the prime minister is focused on public relations and making jokes in front of the cameras. I wonder if the briefing had any kind of operational value,” Herzog said.
The relevant government offices were not eager to accept responsibility for the fiasco.
The municipalities and police pointed fingers of blame at the Electric Corporation.
The director-general of the Electric Corporation, Yiftah Ron Tal, said that “even if we would have trimmed the trees [which brought down power lines] the problem wouldn’t have been solved,” adding “the problem is with the infrastructure of certain areas. They haven’t been changed for years because of budgetary reasons.”
Regarding the army, the source said “at first, they didn’t take their mission seriously. The mayor told the army this is a national emergency and the city needs help, but they sent few people,” the source said, claiming the army was logistically ill-prepared for the mission, Ynet reported.
Not all the news was bad, however. As chaotic as were conditions in Yerushalayim and elsewhere, some communities coped amazingly well.
Beitar Illit, for example, benefited from its preparedness efforts.
The municipality said it received thousands of distress calls since Thursday. Among the hundreds of emergency responses in coordination with Magen Dovid Adom and Hatzalah, were transports of children for bris milah, the sick to the hospital, rescue of vehicles stuck in the snow, removal of fallen trees, and provision of heating equipment for the elderly.
“The residents of Beitar know they are in good hands,” said Mayor Meir Rubenstein. He said that the city had held contingency planning sessions with the army and police, rented snowclearing equipment and made ready for any eventuality.
As in every crisis, there were many individuals who distinguished themselves for their courage, resourcefulness and compassion.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the Cabinet Sunday afternoon: “A few hours ago, I held a consultation to assess the situation in the Yerushalayim District of the Israel Police. I met with two officers there — Nir, who carried an elderly man on his back, and Noam, who drove a woman to the delivery room. They represent the many thousands in the government agencies, and among the public, who are working for the fourth night in a row in the face of this great storm.
“Thanks to the determination of the security and rescue forces, and to the cooperation among citizens, many lives have been saved. The state of Israel is coping very well with the great storm. I believe that we performed better than advanced countries that are hit by such storms more frequently, or countries that suffer such storms, and we see the results with us.”
Some owners of vehicles with four-wheel drive went out on their own initiative and navigated the treacherous roads to bring hot food and drink to the drivers and their families stuck in the massive traffic jam on the highways to Yerushalayim. In some cases, they loaded the stranded into their own vehicles and took them to their homes for Shabbos.
On Thursday, just ahead of the storm, drivers went out and offered rides home to the elderly walking in the streets. The Hamodia offices in Yerushalayim received countless phone calls from people who wanted to somehow thank the anonymous baalei chessed who had driven them home to safety.
The little outpost community of Kfar Tapuach (300 families), was left without power through the storm, and roads in and out were blocked by snow. After asking a she’eilah of pikuach nefesh (where human life is at risk) of the local Rav, Efraim F., who had the only wood-burning stove in town, kept it going on Shabbos so that infants and small children and the sick and elderly could keep warm in the freezing temperatures. They came from all over Tapuach to keep warm in his house.
An IDF unit on Sunday came to the aid of a snowbound woman who was set to give birth in the town of P’nei Kedem, on the eastern edge of Gush Etzion.
The area was snowed in since Thursday; many residents were without running water or electricity.
It took the soldiers two hours to dig their way to the woman’s house and evacuate her to a safer area. Later in the day, the army evacuated other families from the town as well, Arutz Sheva reported.
Mrs. Batya Ruddell of Telshe Stone told Hamodia about how her community coped with the storm. “Telshe Stone has had no electricity, and still has none,” she said on Sunday night.
“Even though the forecasts didn’t sound like there was going to be so much snow, some people stocked up on food and supplies, just in case. I didn’t, but I did make a chicken on Thursday, before we lost electricity.
“The army brought in hot meals, and the grocery was open, even though there was no electricity. That meant the workers were going around with headlamps in the dark and the cash registers weren’t working. But one woman walked in with pens and paper and told everyone to just write down whatever they wanted to buy with their account numbers, and that’s what they did.”
In the wake of the storm, the way forward remains to be cleared. Schools and kindergartens were to remain closed through Monday in Yerushalayim and Tzfas.
The Egged bus company halted bus services traveling to Yerushalayim on Sunday. Officials were due to update the situation at 7 a.m. Monday.
A municipality spokesperson said Sunday that the city is working around the clock with the IDF, police and community leaders to ensure residents remain safe and return to normal life within the next 24-48 hours.
Babies Don’t Wait for Snowplows…
By Dvora Kiel
YERUSHALAYIM – There used to be a cartoon series in one of the New York daily newspapers called “Famous Last Words.” I was reminded of this when I read the mayor’s words in last Tuesday’s Israeli newspapers: “Barkat says Yerushalayim prepared for snow with 100 snowplows, numerous snowmobiles, salt-spreading equipment and 90 tons of salt dissolution material.”
The problem was that when the blizzard hit, dumping 20 inches of snow on the capital and surrounding areas, and more in the north, the snowplows could not make much headway either. Some 80 towns and villages around Yerushalayim and in other high areas like Tzfas and the Golan were shut down for three solid days: schools were closed, highways blocked, public transportation ground to a halt, hundreds stranded. Not to mention the rush of snow-starved Tel Avivians who drove up to the mountains with their children to “play in the snow,” despite all the weather reports and news broadcasts replete with warnings of Stay Home and Do Not Drive.
The worst suffering was caused by the electricity failures that left tens of thousands of homes around Eretz Yisrael without light and heat in below-zero (centigrade) weather, many of them still without power as I write this Sunday night.
Just imagine, however, needing to travel, urgently, from Beitar to a Yerushalayim hospital around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. on Motzoei Shabbos in the thick of a heavy snowfall with no taxis, private cars, or even public transportation available, and all the major highways still closed after three days of thick snow and high winds. That was the dilemma of one young couple I know. Babies don’t wait for snowplows to clear the roads.
The local Beitar “B” Hatzalah ambulance arrived at their front door, with difficulty, but it arrived, within half an hour. The couple boarded the vehicle, having left two-and-a-half-year-old big brother with a neighbor (instead of the planned stop-off at his uncle’s house in Beitar “A,” which was out of the question at that point).
The ambulance proceeded at a measured rate of speed to the entrance of Beitar B … and there it couldn’t get past the gigantic snowbank that blocked the entrance. The piled snow there was no doubt pushed to the side of the road after a plow had partially cleared the main road, but I’m just guessing.
What to do?
With cell phones still blessedly working, they called one of the largest towing companies with branches all over Israel to see if they could be of any help. The answer was yes. While they were waiting for the tow truck, the Hatzalah ambulance had a call from another couple in Beitar B with the same problem! Leaving the first couple at the entrance (Brrr!), the ambulance backed up, turned around and drove as fast as possible to pick up the other couple. After somewhat of a freezing wait, they were relieved when the tow truck arrived, fortunately with room in the cabin for five people besides the driver: an EMT from Hatzalah went along with them just in case…
Navigating the treacherous snowbank, the two couples and the EMT reached the truck and settled in for a slippery, hair-raising ride to the outskirts of Yerushalayim, where the ambulance from Shaare Zedek Medical Center met them and brought them, safely, baruch Hashem, to the hospital around midnight.
It was a boy and … another boy! I assume the seudos at the brissos will also be seudos hodaah.
Kerry Rescued From Storm by IDF
By Hamodia Staff
YERUSHALAYIM – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had an opportunity to share in the trials and tribulations of his Israeli and Palestinian hosts on Thursday, though not in a way that he ever expected.
On his return trip from a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Thursday night, the American diplomat and his entourage were caught in the snowstorm and had to be rescued by IDF units who then escorted him back safely to his hotel in Yerushalayim.
The trip, which under normal conditions — with traffic halted to allow the official motorcade to pass unhindered — takes 12 minutes from Ramallah to central Yerushalayim. On Thursday night, however, it took almost 3 hours.
Afterwards, Kerry thanked the Israelis who enabled him to exit Ramallah and make it back to the capital.
Due to travel disruptions in Yerushalayim, Kerry’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had to be cut short, but a meeting was planned for Sunday to complete their discussions.