Netanyahu says disaster averted in ‘once-in-a-century’ storm

PM hails cooperation between authorities; electric corp. says full power to be restored to all within 48 hours; opposition chief slams televised meeting as PR stunt

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at the situation room of the Jerusalem municipality during the storm, December 14, 2013. (Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at the situation room of the Jerusalem municipality during the storm, December 14, 2013. (Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

Asserting that Israel had prepared effectively for what he called a “once-in-a-century” storm, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night praised the country’s authorities and its citizens for pulling together and averting disaster. “Thanks to the efficient work and excellent coordination… in almost impossible conditions,” he said, “many lives were saved.”

Netanyahu was speaking at a televised emergency meeting of city officials in Jerusalem — which was battered at the weekend by the worst ever December storm on record, and arguably the worst storm ever in modern Israeli history. “In other countries, storms like this have caused many losses of life.” He also thanked the IDF for making armored vehicles quickly available to clear blocked roads.

Opposition head Isaac Herzog (Labor), however, charged there had been a failure to prepare effectively. Herzog said he had warned of the severity of the storm on Wednesday. “My warnings fell on deaf ears,” he said, adding that Israel “should have activated the National Emergency Authority. There is a lack of preparedness.” Herzog also called the televised a meeting a “public relations stunt” that was inappropriate at a time when “thousands of Israelis don’t have any electricity.”

The storm left tens of thousands of households nationwide without electricity, downed 600 power lines, and closed the main roads into Jerusalem for 48 hours.

Four fatalities were reported between Wednesday and Saturday, but Netanyahu said the consequences could have been far worse. “We made saving lives a priority,” he said, with the focus on initiating contact with the elderly, the sick, and other needy and vulnerable Israelis.

With the worst of the storm over, falling temperatures overnight were likely to cause roads to freeze over, and Netanyahu urged drivers to drive responsibly and avoid unnecessary disaster.

Earlier Saturday evening, impatiently rejecting criticism of the authorities’ handling of the storm, Israel’s police chief Yohanan Danino said the country’s public servants had saved “thousands of lives.”

Criticism has focused on electricity failures that left tens of thousands of Israeli households without power for three days, and also on the police and other authorities for inadequate coordination to alert the public to road closures, and to get roads quickly reopened.

“It’s unacceptable that Jerusalem be closed off for 48 hours,” said Likud MK Miri Regev.

As far as “public servants” were concerned, countered Danino, “the Israeli public should know that it can rely” on the authorities.

He said police officers went car-to-car on foot on Thursday night, extricating women and children stranded in vehicles in the Jerusalem area, the north and other areas hit hard by the storm, and saved people “whose lives would otherwise certainly have been in danger.” Some 2,400 people had been extricated by the authorities, he said.

He acknowledged that it was “unacceptable” for Jerusalem to have been cut off for 48 hours , but said he could not reopen the main Route 1 highway until he was certain it was safe to do so.

“We’ve heard the criticism from experts,” Danino said dryly, “but for now we’re in the midst of saving lives… Let’s stop the sniping and get the country back to normal.”

Yiftah Ron-Tal, the head of the Israel Electric Corporation, said 20,000 households were still without power Saturday night, 8,000 in the Jerusalem area, but that the total had originally been 60,000. The vast number of trees that blocked roads had exacerbated the problem, he told the televised meeting with Netanyahu. “In Safed, 100-year-old trees fell like cards,” he said. “There’s been nothing like it in the past century.”

“We will continue to work around the clock to restore power. I believe that most households affected will have power by tomorrow [Sunday]. We believe that 48 hours from now, the problem will be completely resolved,” Ron-Tal added.

Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat said the electricity company was “doing holy work” and also spoke of a sense of “national pride to see IDF volunteers on foot helping out.” Some 300 soldiers were distributing blankets, food and heaters around Jerusalem.

Acknowledging the difficulties faced by thousands who had gone more than two days without heat, Barkat said the priority had been to save lives. The city was now focusing on those who were facing problems with lack of food, he said.

While roads into the city were closed, Barkat noted that rail access was kept open. He said efforts were being made to get the city’s own light rail back into service. “Almost every tree” in the city had been damaged by the storm, Barkat noted.

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