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Grumpy Old Man: Winter storms
By LAWRENCE RIFKIN
19/12/2013
The prime minister got serious about the weather because it’s about time someone got serious about anything around here
 
For a couple of days late last week, Yakov “Yasha” Hain could have been one of the most hated men in the country.

In the absence of Israel Electric Corporation CEO Eliyahu Glickman, who was abroad on a private trip, the senior vice president for engineering became the face of a utility already widely loathed for monopolistic policies, rampant cronyism, obese paychecks and over-the-top perks.

So now, with television and radio stations having shifted to full-time coverage of the Great Winter Storm – and, more importantly, its fallout – Hain’s awkward, dense and lollygagging explanations for the country’s widespread power outages were making about as much headway with interviewers as the IEC’s electrons were in getting to some 60,000 heatless, lightless households.

To be sure, Hain wasn’t at all the right person to be sent to face the media, and you had to give him credit just for showing up, so great and clear was his discomfort as he squirmed before the microphones and lights. In fact, you almost had to feel sorry for him, and it wasn’t until his boss Glickman finally returned late Friday night that you began to remember exactly why it was you hated the electric company.

In fits of pique and almost sneering antipathy, the CEO, a former head of the navy’s uber-tough sea commando unit, began making the rounds of media outlets.

He fended off tough questions with withering fire as if, having emerged from the roiling Lebanese surf on a dark night, he had been discovered by Fatah sentries.

His relentless barrages were aimed at the know-nothings who had dared criticize the enterprise that lays his golden eggs, although by Sunday morning, in an interview with Army Radio, he apparently had composed himself sufficiently for the rank hubris to ooze to the surface.

“I invite the state comptroller to inspect and investigate in depth, and I’m convinced that the IEC will be praised,” Glickman said, as snowbound residents of Jerusalem, Safed and elsewhere were still digging out, and thousands of households had yet to be replugged into the electrical grid. “This was a storm that happens once in 100 years, and everyone was taken by surprise.”

I’m not so sure. The meteorologists knew what was coming, and days before the storm reached our shores, those of us who bothered to listen to the weather guy or gal at the end of the evening news knew we were in for something very big.

As recently as the winter of 1992, residents of Jerusalem and other hilly environs were gobsmacked by a powerful blizzard that left similar numbers of IEC customers without power. My wife and I, along with our firstborn, an infant of just seven months, spent four days without power, although we were spared severe discomfort because we had kept a couple of those fantabulous Japanese kerosene tower heaters from our days of living in one of the capital’s more funky neighborhoods, where central heating was nonexistent and even some of the bathrooms, including ours, were still out back.

You never know, my father used to say, so plan for the unexpected – and he was not the CEO of a large, strategically vital utility.

After 1992, in the pre-winter months of each year, although it was never quite enough, you could see the now-wiser IEC crews diligently cutting back trees and other natural growth that could bring down power lines in bad weather. What’s more, with plans afoot by the municipality and several utilities to improve some of the neighborhood’s infrastructure, the IEC jumped on board and moved our power lines underground. The result? I’m almost embarrassed to report that last week, with widespread and lengthy blackouts just across the main drag, our side of the road had uninterrupted power and, much more importantly, heat.

Don’t get me wrong about the IEC. I admire the linesmen and others who do the scut work. They’re the heroes of the Great Winter Storm, the soldiers sent into battle by old men who sip their cognac in fancy clubs where they discuss bonuses and golden parachutes, and then tell the rest of us to shut up and bug off with our complaints.

The fat cats from the Israel Electric Corporation were not alone in this fiasco.

Let’s start with us, especially those for whom it was business as usual on the two steep and winding main roads to the west that lead into and out of the capital. Lots of people from the coastal plain simply had to drive up for iPhone footage of the kids plastering each other with snowballs and sliding down hills on the covers of trash bins ripped from their hinges.

Forget the fact that as the blizzard built, the authorities loudly warned the snow tourists to stay away or leave. In the end, the luckier ones got floor space at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, while many of the others ended up stranded for many hours – and, in at least one case, days – in snowbound cars just a few kilometers outside town. Setting aside the clear need to rescue these people, their vehicles, gridlocked at crazy angles, blocked road crews from spreading sand and rock salt, things that might have been able to keep the routes open and prevent our nation’s capital from being cut off.

The Israel Police screwed up big-time, simply by failing to close these roads early enough to keep them clear for the road crews. The Jerusalem Municipality screwed up big-time by failing to fit plow blades on its fleet of large, sure-footed rock salt trucks, and sending them out early enough to keep roads open for police, ambulances and fire apparatus – and, no less important, for IEC repair crews and municipal tree and debris removal personnel.

CityPass, the capital’s hidebound light rail operator, screwed up big-time by failing to take care of trees and other impediments to its overhead power lines, and by not keeping its tracks clear. And the government screwed up big-time by having too many ministries and agencies with overlapping responsibilities, which led to turf wars at the very moment people needed their help.

The icing on the cake was Saturday night’s public spectacle at Jerusalem’s City Hall, where Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, knowing that things had spun far out of control, put on a carefully scripted show broadcast live on all the major TV and radio stations, primarily to inform us that he, personally, was now in charge.

It was somewhat bizarre to see a clique of glib, powerful people who usually, with a barked order or snap of the finger, can get their own armies moving, now sitting almost sullenly as Netanyahu all but berated them. The only thing that ruined it was the fact that, instead of listening quietly to the presentations and then making a few comments, perhaps to better coordinate the efforts, Bibi, as only Bibi knows how, lectured everyone on how to do his or her job, as if he were still sitting in the Oval Office in front of hovering cameras and microphones and giving a churlish history lesson to Barack Obama.

In a way, though, it was comforting to see our prime minister step in to take charge. After weeks of ridicule for how he handled everything from relations with the US to accusations of outlandish expenses (which apparently led to his absurd, 11th-hour decision to stay away from Nelson Mandela’s Soweto memorial service because it would “cost too much”), he was showing everyone that he could roll up his sweatered sleeves and soil his hands if need be.

Perhaps it was his way of priming us for the piles of dirty work facing him in other areas, where it’s about time someone took control. Or maybe he was just keeping poor Yasha Hain in mind, knowing that when things start going south, the first step is to make people at least think someone’s in charge.
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