Freak Storm Paralyzes Jerusalem

Four killed, thousands of homes lose power as snow covers Israel and its neighbors over Shabbat.

12/15/13
Israel Correspondent
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JERUSALEM - On February 9, 1969,  an epic nor’easter dumped 20 inches of snow on Queens, where I grew up.  I remember not going to school for a week or more because the city of New York hadn’t managed to removr the snow in the aftermath of the “Lindsay snowstorm.”

The residents of New York blamed Mayor John Lindsay for the fact that 40 percent of the city’s snowplows were broken and that many people were imprisoned in their homes in communities for days on end. 

I recalled that snowstorm last week when, from Thursday through Shabbat, Israel experienced an equally challenging storm, with widespread flooding in the lower elevations and up to 20 inches in Jerusalem, and three-plus feet in the Galilee and Golan Heights. 

The storm, which dropped snow in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt (yes Egypt), Iraq, Syria and Turkey, caused four deaths in Israel. It completely paralyzed Jerusalem with school and store closures. It was impossible to drive in the city, or two and from the city.

Soldiers were called in to evacuate more than 1,500 motorists stuck on Jerusalem’s internal roads and treacherous parts of the two roads leading to and from Jerusalem: The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway and the 443 Modi’in Road.

The Jerusalem municipality housed the stranded motorists in the city’s convention center.

The tens of thousands of Israelis who lost power – some for as much as four days – weren’t as lucky. Most municipalities, including Jerusalem, where more than 25,000  had no heat or lighting, failed to offer residents a warm place in a shelter because there weren’t any set up.

So people were stuck in their dark, freezing homes, and sometimes nursing homes, unable to navigate the roads to friends or family in another, lit-up part of the city.

When the electricity went out in my Jerusalem neighborhood, Baka, a couple of hours before the start of Shabbat, we, like everyone else, ran to a 24-hour store to stock up on memorial candles that would last the entire Shabbat. For the first time in 25 years I left a gas burner on and covered it with a sheet of metal called a “blech” to keep our food warm.  We hunkered down, playing Scrabble by candlelight, until the electricity came on later that evening.

Jerusalem homes are made of stone, which is great for keeping out the heat in the summer – and the winter. The air-conditioner/heating units most of us have don’t really work when the temperature dips below 36 degrees Farenheit, meaning even those of us who had electricity weren’t able to stay warm. 

While the first couple of days at home with the kids in the snow were magical, with snow ball fights and snowmen, the novelty soon turned to boredom. On Monday, they will have been home for four days. 

How parents coped during the Lindsay snowstorm, I don’t know.

Soon after the last snowflakes fell, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, the police commissioner and the chairman of the Israel Electric Corporation gave a press conference at Jerusalem’s municipal command center.

They fell over each other praising not only first responders – who labored around the clock in freezing conditions – but themselves. Netanyahu said that many lives were saved “because of the excellent functioning and extraordinary coordination” of the government.

Israelis, including the 14,000 who remained without power Sunday night and were monitoring the news via their smart phones, were enraged by the self-congratulations. Media commentators noted that employees of the IEC are the highest paid workers in the entire country and why many IEC employees were taking a working vacation in balmy Eilat while large parts of the country were in crisis.  

Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer wrote that “reasonable advance preparations would not have reduced the amount of snow that fell, but that could have reduced the number of hours of suffering and distress suffered by tens of thousands of citizens - on the roads or in their homes without electricity and heat. It was possible to put the army on alert beforehand.

"The IDF was put into action only in the middle of the event. The activation of the National Emergency Authority should have been considered beforehand, and where was the Home Front Command? “

Home Front Command, the authority that handles things like gas mask distribution and the readying of bomb shelters, played a low-key role during Snowmaggeden.

In the face of growing criticism, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira  promised to investigate the government’s preparedness.

While some commentators noted that great cities like Boston and New York have also been paralyzed by mega-storms, that was of little comfort to cold, tired Israelis.

The Lindsay snowstorm, Israel style.

editor@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

12/16/2013 - 12:45

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