The flood disaster in the northern city of Nahariya that claimed the life of a young man last week was a direct result of the municipality’s decision a decade ago to change the route of a river that passes through the city to make way for a shopping mall, a top city official said.
Recent torrential downpours in northern Israel broke a 51-year record of rainfall within a two-week period, with more than 400 millimeters (15.7 inches) of rain pounding the Western and Upper Galilee, causing major floods. In flood-ridden Nahariya, Moti Ben Shabbat, 38, died Wednesday as he tried to save people trapped in an overturned car.
But the death was entirely avoidable, according to an investigation published Sunday by Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site.
Former mayor Jacky Sabag, who led the municipality for a total of 30 years until he lost the 2018 election, ignored numerous warnings by activists who said that plans to build the Arena Mall near the Ga’aton River’s path, with an underground parking lot, would cause a flood hazard, the activists said.
This is Moti Ben Shabat (38). He is an Israeli hero.
He came to rescue a mother and her daughter whose car was sinking in a flooding in Nahariya city in northern Israel. He saved their lives but drowned himself.
May his memory be a blessing. ???? pic.twitter.com/s4CiS3de0o
— Hananya Naftali (@HananyaNaftali) January 9, 2020
The activists, led by environmentalist Orit Keren Reich, argued for years in a legal battle that reached the High Court that the plans to build an underground pipe and concrete channel to replace a 500-meter section of the river would create a narrow bottleneck that would not be able to contain the water in case of heavy rain.
“On normal days that’s fine, but when there is a flood, the water is forced upward and bursts out, because it has nowhere to go,” Keren Reich told Zman Yisrael.
While the High Court acknowledged that there were flaws in the plan’s approval process, it ruled that they were not sufficient to revoke the approval entirely, and the mall was built.
“I was just sitting and waiting for a disaster to happen,” Keren Reich said. “And now, to fix this twisted reality we could have prevented, the state will have to invest a very serious amount of money.”
“We were lucky that because of the High Court case, planners gave up a second floor in the parking lot, and built one instead of two. Now that parking lot is flooded with water and mud, but had there been an additional floor it would have been a death trap.”
Keren Reich’s claims were corroborated by Tal Himi, the city’s current chief engineer, who took office under Mayor Ronen Marelli, who won the 2018 municipal election and has since halted plans to further interfere with the river’s route.
“The concrete channel at the eastern entrance of the river into Nahariya is the cause of the catastrophe that happened at the Ga’aton,” he told Zman Yisrael. “It is too narrow to contain the river.”
Himi contended that though they were “megalomaniacal,” the construction projects initiated by former mayor Sabag were not to blame. Instead he placed the majority of the blame on the local Drainage Authority, saying that both the authority and Sabag were made aware of the danger during the long legal battle waged by Keren Reich and fellow activists.
Himi estimated that the cost of fixing the current damage and preventing another potential disaster would be at least NIS 100 million ($28.86 million) — money the municipality does not have. He called for help from the government.
Former mayor Sabag refused to comment on the report. The current mayor, Marelli, said: “We won’t delve into the past.”