'The City Didn't Help Us': Why Is This Part of Tel Aviv Under Water Every Time It Rains?

The municipality says it has improved drainage system, but latest deaths point to a bigger problem in the city's southern, neglected neighborhoods, which experts says may take years to fix

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A flooded street near Bloomfield Stadium in south Tel Aviv on January 4, 2020.
A flooded street near Bloomfield Stadium in south Tel Aviv on January 4, 2020.Credit: Eyal Sayyag

The drownings of 25-year-old couple Dean Shoshani and Stav Harari in a flooded elevator in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood was a freak tragedy. But for many residents of south Tel Aviv, flooding has become a part of the winter routine, albeit to a lesser extent than what occurred in Saturday's tragedy on Nadav Street.

Residents accuse the municipality of faulty planning and neglecting the need for regular infrastructure improvements particularly on overloaded drainage pipes. The city blames climate change and extreme meteorological events.

“After an incident like this, the city has to come and check,” says Esther, who has lived in the same Hatikva home for 75 years. “They should have checked the dirt and leaves in the drains.”

The municipality said it had thoroughly cleared the drains on Nadav Street at the end of November, and that since then they have also been cleaned out regularly every Friday. As far as the city is concerned, it was ready to absorb the rainfall. There are 15,000 storm drains in the city, officials say, but in cases of a cloudburst like Saturday’s, they can’t handle the huge quantities of water.

Several factors led to the flooded elevator. Nadav is the lowest lying street in the neighborhood; it’s 16.5 meters above sea level, while the adjacent street is 20 meters above. The storm drain nearest to the stairs leading to the building's parking lot where the couple lived can handle less water than the storm drains on Etzel Street, a parallel road. And while the municipality says the street’s pipes were upgraded in the past year, the improvements did not include expanding green areas – trees, bushes and grassy strips – that are also critical to absorbing water overflow, particularly during heavy rain.

The elevator shaft in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood where two people were trapped and died, January 5, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The building that flooded is only a year-and-half old, and was built according to updated standards. But unlike new buildings in the downtown area, where 15 percent of each plot is reserved for a lawn or garden, this building had no garden. The city claims that there was no need for a garden, since buildings of this type can suffice with an outer wall bordering on the street line. “A garden strip wouldn’t have had a dramatic effect in dealing with the surface flow that flooded the plot so strongly in so short a time,” the city says.

A municipal source insisted that “no drainage system in the world could have absorbed that quantity of rain,” as twice as much rain fell in the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv where Nadav Street is located, as in the northern neighborhoods. He said some four million cubic meters of water fell on the city in two hours. “We will study [this] understand, and improve, but it simply isn’t possible to absorb such quantities quickly,” the source said.

Dozens of families were forced to evacuate their homes in the area since the weekend, until the water could drain and the damages repaired. Shai, a resident of Shabtai Street whose home was totally flooded, was looking for a place to sleep with his children. “No one helped us,” he said. “We’re the ones who cleaned and drained [the water] Not the city. The hotline didn’t answer. If this had happened in Ramat Aviv, it would be different.”

Tel Aviv has 21 drainage basins. Some of them funnel water to the Yarkon and Ayalon rivers, while others drain into the sea. In a city drainage plan from 2013, part of an appendix dealing with managing surface flow is devoted to basin No. 9 in the Hatikva quarter where the couple perished in the elevator flood. The plan says that many parts of the system can’t keep up with the flow. The narrow streets and lack of open public spaces, and an anticipated urban renewal plan, demand extensive infrastructure work along the neighborhood’s main streets.

“In replanning the streets, we can suggest a green strip that’s lower than street level to which surface waters can be channeled, to filter them, halt them and even possibly getting them to penetrate the soil,” the document states, stressing the benefits of this solution. The writers also cited specific sites that needed to be replanned. Six years later, few of the recommendations have been implemented. The city said that it intends to advance a plan to upgrade Hatikva Park to help manage surface flow, but the plan has been delayed because the area is designated as a staging area for construction of a branch of the light rail.

Gilad Sapir, director of the hydrology department at DHV, an international consulting company, didn’t write the document but is familiar with it as an adviser to the Tel Aviv municipality. He is preparing a report for managing surface water in Israel. When asked why the 2013 recommendations were never implemented, he said the cost would run about a billion shekels, and would therefore need many years to carry out.

A flooded street in Jaffa, January 4, 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

To date, he added, Israel hasn’t made any plans for dealing with surface water flows. “In Israel there haven’t been floods until recent years. They started talking about it only recently, with the increase in construction,” he said.

The city says that in the past decade, it has invested 1.2 billion shekels ($345 million) on infrastructure in south Tel Aviv. Around Jerusalem Boulevard in the Jaffa basin, the largest drainage basin in the city, work at a cost of 9.5 million shekels was done near the post office. That didn’t stop the street from flooding over the weekend. Nor did the 37 million shekels invested on Kibbutz Galuyot Road, which also flooded.

In an interview with Channel 13 News, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said on Sunday that “the disaster will be investigated and lessons learned. The city’s sewerage system, which has been vastly improved, isn’t meant to stand up to that kind of rain, which happens once every 50 years.”

The municipality’s official response was that “for a two-hour period on Saturday some 80 millimeters of rain fell continuously" and that the amount came to 20 percent of the city's annual rainfall. "These were extreme and unprecedented circumstances of quantities of rain beyond what the city’s drainage system can absorb in such a short time.”

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