Biggest Storm in Decade Wreaks Havoc in Israel, Shuts Down Ayalon Highway for 9 Hours

Haifa receives as much rain as it normally sees in an entire winter, while the north receives about 90% of its allotment for a typical winter; Haifa also leads country in wind speeds, with gusts up to 124 kph.

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The most treacherous storm in a decade paralyzed much of the country on Tuesday, climaxing with the shutdown of Israel's main highway in both directions for nine hours due to flooding.

Power outages were reported, the entrance to Tel Aviv was all but blocked and residents of some city neighborhoods braced for possible evacuation.

On Tuesday, the Ayalon Highway - the main traffic artery in Tel Aviv - reopened only at about 4 P.M. after closing before the morning rush hour. It was the first time in 20 years that the Ayalon has been closed for such a long time, spawning massive traffic jams in the greater Tel Aviv area. Drivers said that even short trips that normally take a few minutes took three or even four hours on Tuesday.

The weather also severely disrupted public transportation; the train service in Tel Aviv was shut down for hours, while buses and taxis were caught in the gridlock.

It wasn't just the Ayalon Highway that suffered; the drainage system proved insufficient on many streets. The Yarkon River overflowed and flooded several bridges spanning the waterway, as well as the nearby Yarkon Park.

In Tel Aviv alone, the storm had brought down 14 traffic lights and 41 trees by Tuesday evening, and in seven cases, the fallen trees damaged buildings. On several major arteries, traffic lights weren't working, so even after the Ayalon reopened, traffic slowed to a crawl.

The day was also punctuated by dramatic rescues. In Rosh Ha'ayin, a family was evacuated by helicopter from the roof of their car, which got caught in a flood. In Baka al-Gharbiyeh, a family trapped on the roof of their house was evacuated by helicopter. One driver was severely injured when his car fell 150 feet down a hillside near Lapid.

Dozens of people were evacuated from flooded houses in south Tel Aviv, mainly in the Yedidya, Ezra and Ha'argazim neighborhoods. But the municipality said that past storms have actually caused much worse flooding.

Still, it's likely to be years before such flooding becomes a thing of the past. A new drainage reservoir slated to be built in Ariel Sharon Park is supposed to solve the problem of flooding in south Tel Aviv and the Ayalon Highway, but due to bureaucratic delays, the park is only in its early stages of construction. Moreover, plans for the reservoir have yet to be drawn up, nor has the state budgeted the project.

The Israel Electric Corporation said that despite outages in a few locales, the power supply remained steady in most of the country. One outage, in Tel Aviv's Kerem Hateimanim neighborhood, lasted for hours because traffic jams prevented repairmen from reaching the spot.

However, early Wednesday morning, electricity cut out in the industrial area of Hadera and neighboring houses, after an IEC substation was flooded. Nearby communities and cities also suffered blackouts, including Gan Shmuel, Baqa al-Gharbiyye, Maanit and Pardes Hanna.

The next two days will remain rainy and be much colder, with snow in the northern and central hills, including Jerusalem. On Tuesday night, snow could spread to hills in the Negev.

The Israel Meteorological Service said Israel hadn't seen a storm of this magnitude since February 2003 in terms of both rainfall and the number of days of heavy rain. Haifa, for instance, has received as much rain as it normally sees in an entire winter, while the north has received about 90 percent of its allotment for a typical winter.

Particularly heavy rain, 95 millimeters, fell on Tuesday in the Ben-Shemen Forest, the heart of the Ayalon River's drainage basin, which explains the flooding in that normally dry riverbed.

The service also reported wind speeds higher than anything seen since 2000. One measuring station in Jerusalem recorded an average wind speed of 66 kilometers per hour, with gusts as high as 111 kph. Haifa led the country with gusts up to 124 kph.

The Jerusalem municipality spent Tuesday preparing for Wednesday's expected snowfall, readying 100 snowplows and 40 tons of salt. The light rail is expected to function normally, but the city will decide only Wednesday morning whether to open schools.

A woman caught in a flash food near Jenin on Jan 8, 2013.Credit: AP
An aerial view of central Tel Aviv, with the Ayalon Highway, which was shut down for several hours due to flooding, Jan. 8, 2013.Credit: Lowshot
Ayalon Highway shut down in both directions due to flooding. January 8, 2013.
A bus in Jerusalem.
A woman walks through rain in Ashdod, Jan. 8, 2013.
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Ayalon Highway shut down in both directions due to flooding. January 8, 2013.Credit: Moti Milrod
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A bus in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
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A woman walks through rain in Ashdod, Jan. 8, 2013.Credit: Ilan Assayag
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