After ‘storm of the century,’ crippled Jerusalem plows on
Reporter's notebook

After ‘storm of the century,’ crippled Jerusalem plows on

Three days of heavy snowfall leave the capital’s sidewalks unnavigable and its streets littered with broken tree limbs

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

A view of the the snow-covered walls of Jerusalem's Old City, Saturday, December 14, 2013 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A view of the the snow-covered walls of Jerusalem's Old City, Saturday, December 14, 2013 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In the wake of three consecutive days of snow, Jerusalem’s streets are a tangled mess of broken boughs, snow drifts, slush and half-buried cars. An estimated 19 inches fell on a decidedly unprepared capital, stranding vehicles, knocking power out across the city, and bringing businesses and transportation to a halt.

The center of the city was uncharacteristically empty for a Saturday night, as most residents huddled indoors against the cold. The Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall, typically mobbed by teens after the departure of the Sabbath, was empty of people and covered in several inches of packed powder. Major roads were clear, but side streets remained blanketed in wet, heavily packed snow among ruts coated in black ice. The light rail’s tracks along Jaffa Road were encrusted in ice, and much of the rail line was covered in snow.

Accustomed as I am to inclement weather (having been born in Syracuse, NY, lived many years in New England and studied in Toronto), it came as a shock that the much-touted snow plows and salt trucks that served as props in a photo op for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat were nowhere to be seen on Thursday or Friday. Only on this, the third day of the storm, did backhoes, plows, even the Israel Defense Forces’ armored personnel carriers, take to the roads to clear the accumulated and frozen solid precipitation. They will undoubtedly work through the night to keep the city’s thoroughfares navigable.

Mayor Nir Barkat investigating the Jerusalem Municipality's preparations ahead of the mid-December storm. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Mayor Nir Barkat investigating the Jerusalem Municipality’s preparations ahead of the mid-December storm. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

City Hall scrambled on Saturday to clear Jerusalem’s main roads and highways of snow, but the sidewalks remained a treacherous mess of compacted ice several inches thick. (This reporter’s sore bottom will attest to the slickness of ice-coated Jerusalem stone pavement.) After another night with near-freezing temperatures, residents navigating the city’s streets on Sunday for the first time since Wednesday will face the perils of uncleared and unsafe sidewalks.

On Thursday night, the night air echoed with the sound of tree limbs snapping like matchsticks beneath the weight of the snow. Two nights later, central Jerusalem reverberated with the sound of chainsaws, wielded by tree crews hired by the municipality to clear away those fallen branches. According to Barkat, “almost every tree” in the city was damaged by the storm.

Around midnight I asked one of the laborers how much work he had cut out for him. He gave a sheepish shrug and mumbled something to the effect of “a lot.” And he could give no estimate of how long the cleanup project would take.

Jerusalem's Shatz Street pedestrian mall covered in snow and downed tree limbs, Saturday night, December 14, 2013 (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
Jerusalem’s Shatz Street pedestrian mall covered in snow and downed tree limbs, Saturday night, December 14, 2013 (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

Scars of the brutal December storm will mark the city’s trees for years to come, but for the time being the pressing issue for thousands of Jerusalemites is the lack of electricity. As of Saturday night, thousands of residents were still without power — a consequence of tree limbs tearing down electrical wires across the city.

Though the Israel Electric Corporation’s employees worked “around the clock,” according to one worker who spoke to Channel 2, to get the grid back online, darkness still swathed many homes in the city. In defense of the IEC’s failure to get power fully restored in Jerusalem after two days, CEO Eli Glickman said that despite its preparations, it was impossible to predict such a disaster.

“Compared to other countries in the world — let’s take [cue air quotes] ‘developed countries,’ the United States, New York, New Jersey — just in the last year there were power outages of a month and a month-and-a-half. Here we’re talking about citizens suffering badly for a few hours, and our hearts are with them, but let’s compare it to the United States,” he said.

In Glickman’s defense, preparations were made and the storm was a “once-in-a-century” event, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it. At the same time, comparing a relatively mild snowstorm (by international standards) to Superstorm Sandy is out of line and belittles the magnitude of that colossal disaster.

It’s likely some Israelis won’t have power come morning. It’s more likely that some businesses and public offices won’t be up and running, even once public transportation returns to regular service. Although disaster was averted, as Netanyahu proclaimed on Saturday after the last flakes fell, City Hall’s preparations proved woefully inadequate, and recovery will take several days longer than it should have. For once, MK Miri Regev (Likud) was the voice of reason when she said that the capital should not have been snowbound as long as it was.

But let’s take stock: Jerusalem is not underwater like the Gaza Strip; its residents were temporarily beleaguered, but not in a chaotic war zone like those of Homs; and they have roofs over their heads, unlike many Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

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