Massive Snowstorm Shuts Down Jerusalem

Thousands throughout country still without power; man in Rishon Letzion dies after falling off roof while attempting to repair a leak; baby dies in fire caused by electric heater. Israel opens Gaza crossing to allow entry of gas, water pumps.

The winter weather system that hit Israel is expected to weaken as the day progresses Saturday, after four days of heavy storms throughout the country. The weather caused traffic disruptions and power outages, floods in southern regions, a brief closure of Ben-Gurion International Airport, and a measure of excitement among the nation's many snow-lovers.

Thousands of people in and around Jerusalem were left without power after over 15 inches of snow piled up in the heaviest December storm since 1953 in the capital. A hastily assembled array of relief services, beefed up by Israeli army troops, came to the aid of hundreds of motorists who were trapped in their vehicles, some for up to 10 hours.

As of Saturday morning, the total number of households still left without power was 35,000, 13,000 in Jerusalem alone, the Israel Electric Company reported. Snow was still coming down in the north of the country and Jerusalem Saturday, with intermediate rains in the rest of the country.

A one-year old baby died after an electric heater set fire to a house in Lod Saturday morning. 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.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat described the snowstorm as a "tsunami," for which the municipality was unprepared. The city set up several improvised snow-havens, granting shelter to hundreds of the snowed-in masses, many of whom had come to the capital to celebrate what is usually a much less torrid event.

Roads to and from Jerusalem were closed as of Thursday night and school there was cancelled Friday. 

Israel Railways is operating two trains free of charge Saturday from Jerusalem to Haifa, going through Tel Aviv. Over 3 feet of snow accumulated in the northern city Safed.

Snow began falling in Jerusalem Thursday morning. The winter weather system, which began Tuesday night, intensified across the country.

Police blocked traffic on roads leading to the capital in both directions until 6 A.M. Friday, after snow fell on Highways 1 and 443. Highway 60 was also blocked in both directions between Gush Etzion and Ha’okfim Junction. The wintery weather is expected to continue today, and schools will be closed in Jerusalem, Ofakim and Arad.

Mount Hermon saw more snow Thursday, totaling 60 centimeters since Tuesday. Snow also pelted the northern city of Safed Thursday evening. Dozens of millimeters of rain have fallen in the greater Tel Aviv region, the Sharon and the Galilee since Wednesday night.

Schools in the capital and its environs were closed Thursday, as well as in Rahat, Umm al-Fahm, the regional councils of Ma’ale Iron, Neve Midbar and Al Kasum, and in Ofra, Psagot and Beit El. The Education Ministry has called upon parents to stay updated via the municipal hotline in their locality, by calling the school itself, or on the ministry’s Facebook page.

There were several weather-related incidents. In southern Israel. A car with nine children was swept away by a flood in the Garar River area Thursday. They were evacuated with the driver and airlifted to Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva suffering light injuries from exposure. Ofakim’s water main exploded due to floods, leaving the southern town without tap water. A 45-year-old man was evacuated to Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Tzrifin in moderate condition with hypothermia, after he was found lying on a street in the city of Lod.

The cold snap was forecast to continue Friday. As of Thursday night, Friday's forecast was rain and cold, with snow on the summits of the mountains in the north and center, and possibly on the summits of the southern hills as well. The rain will continue Saturday, when snow is expected to continue falling in the mountains. It will still be colder than usual. On Sunday the weather will be partly cloudy with a slight rise in temperatures. There is still a possibility of light local rain, and a possibility of frost at night.

Dr. Amos Porat of the Meteorological Service said, “At the moment we’re only in the initial stage of the present system.” Porat describes the anticipated system as one without a short beginning, middle and end: “It will enter gradually with cold air, rain and snow, with stronger and weaker waves. On Shabbat the system will decline gradually.”

The Meteorological Service reported that since the beginning of the storm two days ago and up to Thursday afternoon, the largest amounts of rain, 40-60 mm., were measured in the southern Coastal Plain, the central mountain areas and the Sharon. The north and the center received 20-40 mm. and in the south there was almost no rain. In Kibbutz Negba, near Kiryat Malakhi, 55 mm. of rain fell in the past 24 hours, in Jerusalem 51 mm. and in Tel Aviv 41 mm.
The community of Harashim in the Galilee had 52 mm., Nahariya 41 mm. and Haifa only 14 mm.

Eli Ashkenazi, Yaniv Kubovich, Jack Khoury, Yarden Skop, Shirly Seidler, Zohar Blumenkrantz and Nir Hasson contributed to this report.

Olivier Fitoussi