Israel's Poor Infrastructure Magnified Storm's Damage, Officials Say

Flooding of Ayalon becomes flashpoint for grievances.

The storms continued to rage across Israel for a third day Wednesday, dropping rain, sleet and snow, with more in store for Thursday.

But government officials and businesses were already at work toting up the cost of the damage and assigning blame to infrastructure they said failed to hold up under pressure from the biggest winter storm to hit in a decade.

Flooding has so far caused some NIS 1 billion in damage because drainage systems operated by regional authorities under Agriculture Ministry regulation and supervision were improperly maintained, Shlomo Buhbut, chairman of the Local Authorities Union, said Wednesday.

He called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to provide government assistance to local government.

"A major overhaul of infrastructure by local government is needed," Buhbut, also mayor of Ma'alot-Tarshiha, said in a letter to the prime minister.

"Clearly the localities can't handle the heavy, necessary restoration by themselves, and the Finance Ministry must provide them with financial assistance. I also ask that you form a joint committee including local government representatives to review the performance of the regional drainage authorities, recommend structural improvements, and act to protect urban communities from future damage."

In one of the biggest infrastructure failures of the storm week, officials traded charges about who was responsible for the flooding of the Ayalon Highway transportation corridor, which also includes rail lines. It was the third time in two decades that the artery, which runs through the heart of greater Tel Aviv, had been shut down by torrents of water.

Transportation Ministry officials were quick to blame the Agriculture Ministry, which handles drainage systems.

"We do all we can to keep roads open, and deal with localized problems to the best of our ability," said a senior Transportation Ministry official. "However, there is not much we can do when a stream overruns its banks."

The drainage system that encompasses the Ayalon Highway covers a large area of the coastal plain, and can handle volumes of up to 400 cubic meters of water per second, but this limit was exceeded Tuesday, with 440 cubic meters of water flowing per second, flooding the highway. Experts said a capacity of 600 cubic meters per second would be required to prevent flooding. But it isn't possible to deepen the channel along the current route, and in any case an additional railway line planned will further limit drainage capacity.

For his part, Netanyahu looked at the bright side of an unusually wet week. "We've waited many years for this rainfall," he said. "I hope it will remain a blessing and not lead to casualties. I thank the citizens for their patience. After the traffic jams are gone we'll be left with full reservoirs, and we need this water."

But the prime minister also said he instructed the director-general of his office to examine ways to provide financial assistance to anyone suffering damage from the storm, as there is no law on the books requiring state compensation.

NIS 300 million in damage to business

Meanwhile, the Manufacturers Association estimated storm damage to the business sector at NIS 300 million as of Tuesday. Roughly half this amount, it said, was the direct result of employees missing work due to blocked roads, particularly the Ayalon Highway, according to estimates by the association's economic research department.

The Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce estimated that about 15% of the private sector workforce had failed to reach their workplaces on Tuesday. In the public sector, approximately one third were late that day - by an hour on average - and 10 percent never showed up at all, according to the Civil Service Administration. Waiting times at government offices were particularly long as a result.

The Manufacturers Association said that other losses to business were due to shutdowns of outdoor activity such as quarrying, construction and agriculture. Retailers and service providers also saw their daily proceeds shrink due to extremely light customer traffic. The estimate didn't take into account direct damage to facilities and inventories from flooding and other weather-related scourges.

With the constant increase in local tax rates and other fees, the level of infrastructure services to industrial plants should be sufficient to keep them from sustaining storm damage, but the manufacturers asserted that in many places the system collapsed and led to flooding.

The absentee rate at some factories reached 60% due to the stormy weather. Industries that operate outdoors notified employees in advance not to come to work. Work was also heavily disrupted at company headquarters concentrated around Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan because of the Ayalon's closure.

Meir Tzur, secretary-general of the agricultural Moshav Movement, said some of the hothouses and orchards sustained heavy damage from the storm but that he doesn't expect this to impact fruit and vegetable prices.

Electricity in Hadera was restored early on Wednesday after flooding at a local substation knocked out the system a day earlier. About 20,000 consumers - households and businesses - suffered blackouts Tuesday night.

The nearby Hadera Paper plant was also flooded and the company reported that operations there were shut down.

"Electricity company employees worked around the clock in the rough weather," said Israel Electric Corporation CEO Eli Glickman. He added that divers were called in to clear debris, which had been swept in by the sea, away from cooling vents at the Reading and Ashkelon power stations.

Power outages also hit the areas of Rishon Letzion and Rehovot, along with other malfunctions reported throughout the country due to storm damage to high-tension wires. The IEC claimed, however, that the number of power failures wasn't significantly larger than typically experienced on other occasions of inclement weather.

Gil Cohen-Magen