My Word: Under the weather

The snow storm is called Alexa, but knowing its name didn’t make it seem any friendlier.

December 19, 2013 21:43
Snow remains on the ground at the intersection of Jerusalem’s King George Avenue and Ben-Yehuda St.

Snow remains on ground in Jerusalem 370. (photo credit: Amy Spiro)


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Poet and writer Haim Gouri, noting that Israel is a country characterized by sudden contrasts, once said that even our weather goes from one extreme to the other. And that is the thought that kept coming back to me throughout the unusual cold spell – barely two weeks after we were complaining about an unseasonal heatwave.

It has been a period of opposites, bringing out the best and the worst in the Israeli public.

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How is it, we collectively wondered, that we can cope with missiles and wars, scarcely missing a beat, and yet Mother Nature can bring us to an abrupt halt, the capital cut off in something that brought to mind the various sieges of Jerusalem.

The snow storm is called Alexa, but knowing its name didn’t make it seem any friendlier.

If anything, having a name that starts with the first letter of the alphabet bodes badly: How many more such storms are we meant to be facing? And, more to the point, will the relevant authorities be any better prepared in the future.

There were calls from the opposition for a parliamentary committee of inquiry to examine just how it was that thousands upon thousands of homes throughout the country were left without electricity, many of them for days on end.

Last Thursday, as the storm was breaking out, Israel was unanimously accepted as a full member of the 20-state council of CERN, the Center of European Nuclear Research that operates the Large Hadron Collider, the first non-European country to have that honor.

Another striking contrast. Surely a country whose scientific research is so far-reaching should be able to provide the solutions to power outages. It seems the many trees that fell in the high winds and under the weight of snow brought the high voltage electric cables down with them. In effect, they brought the whole country down.

Commissions of inquiries are only as effective as the implementation of the recommendations they offer. It doesn’t take a high-level panel to determine that it would be costly but effective to bury the cables underground leaving them – and us – less exposed to the vagaries of nature (or war, for that matter.) As an added bonus, it would also improve the landscape and view.

No special committee need convene, either, to determine that Jerusalem should ready itself for winter with supplies of salt and having more snow plows wouldn’t hurt. The driver of the bulldozer doing his best to shovel the snow on the main road outside my apartment window was poorly equipped to deal with the quantities – if you get my drift – and not equipped at all to deal with the ice which brought all the public transport to a halt for the night. The bus drivers were unable to take the risks involved with the black ice.

Black ice is a term that only entered the Hebrew lexicon and consciousness this week, although the term General Horef (General Winter) – a reflection of the sort of weather that brought Napoleon down in Russia – has long been in use. Perhaps that too is a reflection of the way our collective mindset is programmed to deal with acts of war rather than acts of nature.

The situation reminded me somewhat of the empty promises (or threats) at the unexpected outbreak of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 – before it turned out that the military storerooms were not sufficiently equipped and the IDF was not prepared.

Empty promises echo particularly loudly in poorly stocked warehouses, be they military or municipal. Note to newly reelected Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat – in case he hasn’t figured it out for himself from the invective comments that rained down on him in the press and social media: Do not have your photo taken with a token, insufficient, snow plow unless you are really prepared for the storm, and not in the “Apres moi le deluge” sense. When residents of your Holy City see the pictures as they shiver in their unheated homes, unable to step out on the treacherously slippery roads, it’s like pouring some of that obviously lacking salt on our wounds.

We don’t need a committee of inquiry, we already know the problem: arrogance and the “smoch alie” mentality, “Trust me.”

The same can be said of the Israel Electric Corporation whose spokesman ahead of the storm promised that the company could deal with the extra demand that would come with added heating requirements.

Very quickly it became apparent that it couldn’t even supply any power to many people and what seemed to be the light at the end of the tunnel was actually coming from an innocent passerby struggling to use his cellphone as a flashlight as he avoided ice, snow and broken branches on the hazardous street.

During the frequent outages that hit my own home, I tried to call the IEC emergency line. Never has the taped company slogan coming down the phone been so annoying as the voice singing out “With you every minute, the electric company.”

Not every minute, not every hour and not even my very miserable moment of distress when in the dark I slipped and smashed my glasses, which would have been bad enough even if I hadn’t been wearing them at the time. My black eye matches my mood every time I hear an ostensibly calming IEC statement.

The corporation’s suggestion of checking the company’s website for details regarding the places where it was working on restoring power went from seeming funny to making fun of us poor consumers. Note to IEC management: When you don’t have a working modem and can’t charge your cellphone for hours and days, access to the Internet disappears.

Altogether, one of the lessons we learned from the storm was that sometimes the technological advances amount to very little.

A grandmother of 10 who lives in a community that had no electricity for at least four days told Israel Radio that the adults and older children were taking it in turns to strap a newborn grandchild to their chests and walk around to provide body warmth.

There was of course a positive side to the situation, the silver lining in the clouds of snow. As in any emergency, people pulled together. Family, friends, neighbors and complete strangers lent each other a helping hand, pooled resources, cheered one another on.

The country was paralyzed – those areas not hit by the blizzard were effected by the heavy rains and flooding – but the milk of human kindness flowed. Meals and hospitality were provided to those stranded far from home; a woman in labor, stuck in the non-moving traffic on Route 443, gave birth with the help of a medic and nurse stuck in the same traffic jam; a bride was transported to her wedding.

And the helping hand extended at a national level. Nature knows no borders, and the torrential rains fell not just on Israel.

Answering a UN plea, on Sunday the Mekorot water company provided heavy-duty pumps to Gaza, where thousands were made homeless by Alexa’s floods. Fortunately, while the Dutch water company Vitens last week cut off contacts with Mekorot for alleged violation of international law for operating beyond the 1948 borders, the Palestinians in Gaza themselves did not boycott the humanitarian aid from an Israeli company. Later, however, rumors that Israel was responsible for causing the Gaza flooding surfaced, as they do any time the Hamas government has trouble coping with a problem.

Another contrast, another conflict.

Israel, winter 2013.

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