Jerusalem Is (Finally) Prepared for 'Snowmageddon'

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Rami Levy supermarket in Jerusalem, January 2015.
Rami Levy supermarket in Jerusalem, January 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

It probably would not be too far-fetched to say that Israeli authorities have never prepared for a bad spell of weather the way they have now.

The police, municipalities, ministries, nonprofit organizations, social networks and community administrations all seem to have set up war rooms and Whatsapp groups, distributed food and snow shovels, and held meetings to prepare for what people are calling the coming snowmageddon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who shows a great deal of affection for emergencies, on Tuesday took the trouble to go to the Jerusalem municipality’s snow-emergency headquarters.

“It seems to me that the authorities have done their preparation and coordination work,” Netanyahu said.

“We have three tasks. The first task is to save lives, the second is to make sure that vital services remain in operation, and the third is mutual assistance - residents helping residents - mutual responsibility. Besides the actions that the state is taking and will take, besides what the municipalities are doing and will do, I ask that the citizens of Israel simply keep an eye on their neighbors and help. The people of Israel excel at doing that.”

Siege mentality

The siege mentality that is part of Jerusalem’s DNA could still be felt last night.

The city’s residents, who occasionally make light of the exaggerated preparations, still hurried to buy supplies for the storm and emptied out the bread shelves. People closed themselves up in their homes, the streets emptied out and a stream of cancellation notices for events, schools and programs kept up all evening long.

The police plan to close the roads leading to the capital before the snow hits, to enable the snow plows to work unimpeded by other vehicles. The decision to keep the snow tourists from the coastal plain out of the city will make the feeling of siege all the stronger.

We can make fun of the warlike tone of the preparations for the storm and the exaggerated seriousness that has gripped the city leaders and the country. And we should remember that having one’s photograph taken wearing a winter coat and standing near a snowplow does not hurt in election season.

But it is impossible to understand all the hoopla without remembering how badly Jerusalem’s residents suffered during last year’s freak storm. Tens of thousands of them remember going for days without electricity and being unable to leave their homes.

“There’s a lot of hysteria, no doubt about it,” says Ariel Shtessman of the non-profit group B’Chesed and B’Tzedek, which assists needy families in Jerusalem’s southern region. “But we need to remember that for a person who is in hardship in any case, who does not have sufficient heating or food, a snow event makes him feel even more helpless.”

“While I don’t think we’ll have a repeat of what happened last year, people really suffered,” says Menahem Biton, an activist of the ambulance service United Hatzalah in Jerusalem’s Rehavia and Sha’arei Hesed neighborhoods.

“I remember an old man shouting from the window for someone to come and take him because he had had no electricity for several days. I hope that we will not need all the preparations, but it’s good that they’re being made.”

A lesson learned

“From our experience last year, the system also gets people upset,” says Avi Muller of Shomrei Ha’emek, a volunteer organization that works much of the year to protect the Valley of the Cross and mobilizes to provide community assistance during snow emergencies.

“It affects older women who live on their own and listen to the radio all the time. Last year I got telephone calls from people who said, ‘Come quickly. The building is about to collapse from the snow.’ I went, and saw that the buildings were ... in no danger. But there’s significance to the feeling that someone is there to answer you and someone will come. It’s also psychological to an extent.”

One lesson learned from the December 2013 storm was that community administrations and social networks (real-life ones, not virtual ones) must be decentralized.

A team of volunteers has been set up in each neighborhood, usually made up of existing groups such as a synagogue committee, youth group, volunteer organization, nonprofit assistance group and even environmental-action groups.

The municipality distributed snow-removal tools to the volunteers, who run an assistance network to provide help to those in their area who need it.

“Last year we saw that the strength of the communities is the real strength of the city,” said Shaike El-Ami, director of the Ginot Ha’ir Community Council. “The neighborhoods and volunteer groups were what helped the public. I assume that they will be relevant this time, too.”

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