Netanyahu: Saving lives is top priority; IDF vehicles assisting relief efforts
Tens of thousands remain without power even as storm weakens; Highway 1 opened for public transport; 2 bodies found in south.
Four storm-related deaths were reported and over 20,000 households remained without power last night, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that saving lives was the authorities’ top priority in responding to four days of rain and heavy snowfall in many parts of the country.
A man in Rishon Letzion died Friday after falling off the roof of his house while attempting to repair a leak caused by the storm. An 18-month-old was killed Saturday morning in Lod when his mattress caught fire from a heater. Later Saturday, two bodies were found near the Tze’elim River in the western Negev. One of them has been identified as one of two missing persons from Rahat.
There is no school on Sunday in Jerusalem, Safed, Betar Ilit, in the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council and various towns in the north. The Education Ministry urged parents to call their local municipal hotlines for updates, or to check the ministry’s Facebook page. The Hebrew University and Ariel University will also be closed.
The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway was tentatively opened last night in the direction of Jerusalem, to allow residents of the capital who had been trapped outside the city to return home. At first only buses were allowed on the road, and then private cars – but only those carrying Jerusalem residents who could present identity cards.
By 9:30 P.M., Egged stopped sending buses to Jerusalem and halted efforts to restart the capital’s bus service, saying the roads were too slippery.
At a press conference with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino, Netanyahu last night rejected criticism of the way the storm was handled.
“We prepared for the storm as a country should prepare,” Netanyahu said. “In countries that have frequent storms they are paralyzed for very long periods, and I’m happy to say that that’s not the case here.”
The storm cut off access to Jerusalem over the weekend and practically paralyzed it. Tens of thousands of Jerusalemites spent all or most of Shabbat without electricity. After more snow fell overnight Thursday and then again on Friday night into Saturday morning, it accumulated to 70 centimeters or more in some neighborhoods, the most snow recorded in the capital since 1920. The storm allied to abandoned vehicles made many roads impassable and added to the Israel Electric Corporation’s difficulty in making repairs.
Overnight Thursday and Friday morning, thousands of people had to be rescued from cars that had become stuck along the roads coming into and within Jerusalem on Thursday night. Thousands of Israel Defense Forces soldiers, policemen and Jerusalem Municipality workers aided in the rescue.
There were no serious injuries in Jerusalem, though hospital emergency rooms received hundreds of people, with the most common injuries resulting from snowballs, falls or unsafe use of heaters.
There were plenty of complaints against the authorities.
“There was total collapse here,” said MK Ariel Atias (Shas), who was stuck in his car for 12 hours. “Why did they do all those preparations? We kept hearing about snowplows and salt-spreaders, where were they?”
Barkat rejected the criticism, saying the municipality, the police and army performed well under the circumstances, which included snow falling for nine straight hours on Thursday night.
“I’m not sure the public is aware of the scope, but we handled the process properly. While there were delays and damage, we came out of it respectably and with no deaths,” Barkat said.
In the north, many towns lost power, roads were closed and Safed was “on the brink of chaos,” according to some rescue workers. Access roads to the city were closed Friday night, and in some neighborhoods there was no water as well as no electricity. Some parts of the city got a meter and a half of snow.
“During the winter of 1992 we had a storm that lasted nearly a week, but there wasn’t such chaos,” said Benny Sarel, a resident of Safed’s Neveh Oranim neighborhood and whose home had no power over the weekend. “I know many people were working through the night, but the result wasn’t good.”
Sarel was home with his wife, 2-year-old twins, his mother and his brother. At about 11 P.M. on Friday, soldiers in an armored personnel carrier evacuated the couple and their twins, leaving the mother and brother at home.
Meir Yancu sounded resentful that the focus during the storm all seemed to be on Jerusalem. “Once we would see the army clearing the roads; now we were just ignored,” he said. “True, we’re not the Philippines, we’re just Safed. Still, we expected help to come a bit faster.”
Eli Ashkenazi, Yaniv Kubovich, Jack Khoury, Yarden Skop, Shirly Seidler, Zohar Blumenkrantz and Nir Hasson contributed to this report.