If disaster strikes

Is the city equipped to protect us? And do we know how to protect ourselves?

kids stretcher 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
kids stretcher 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
'The state will not be able to come and save you. In the event of a massive natural disaster or an attack, you must assume that you and your family will be on your own for up to 72 hours. I repeat: No one will come to rescue you." This is not the mayor of New Orleans speaking before Hurricane Gustav or the governor of Texas before Ike. It is Amnon Ilani, deputy director of the Security and Emergency Department in the Jerusalem Municipality. His words are intended as a wake-up call for the citizens of Jerusalem to be prepared. This area has been prone to major earthquakes approximately every 100 years. The last "big one" rattled the Holy City in 1927, and no one is pretending that the next one is not on the way. In addition, we are facing critical times with respect to Israeli security. "The home front will be the main front of the [next] war, whether it is missiles from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria or Iran," deputy defense minister Matan Vilna'i told The Jerusalem Post in October. Vilna'i takes this threat so seriously that he recently announced that he is setting up a special security school in the Tel Aviv area to train mayors and regional and local council heads how to manage in the event of a war. In accordance with a plan drawn up by the National Emergency Administration (a newly created agency set up to coordinate the various emergency services), by the end of this year every municipality and council will have to have drafted and approved an emergency plan for their community during wartime. In this regard, Jerusalem is ahead of the curve. The municipality already has the security and emergency department to deal with states of emergency, and some 30 emergency plans to cover a variety of scenarios, including chemical, biological or conventional missile attack, terrorism, shooting incidents, snowstorms, earthquakes and a Temple Mount emergency. Operating on a budget of NIS 66 million for 2008, the department provides assistance to emergency and rescue services (the police, Magen David Adom, firefighters and the IDF) during times of emergency. In addition, it serves as a municipal headquarters during emergencies, maintaining vital communications links for the municipality and the relevant emergency and rescue services. BUT JUST how prepared are we for an emergency? Do we know what to do when the siren sounds or the earth rumbles? Do we even know where the nearest shelter or protected space is? Do we keep essential supplies at home to ensure, at the very least, food and water for ourselves and our families? The answers to an informal survey of passers-by on Derech Beit Lehem in Baka were not very encouraging. David, who lives in an older building on Derech Hebron without a shelter or a security room, had no idea where the nearest public shelter was, even though he was standing on the corner of Rehov Yiftah and Derech Beit Lehem, only a short walk from a public shelter at Yael and Yiftah. "Well, if there is an emergency situation, I guess we would seal a room like we did in the First Gulf War," he said, apparently unaware that a sealed room does not provide very good protection against conventional missile attack. "No, we don't keep any emergency supplies at home," he said. Miriam, who lives in Katamon Het in an old shikun (government-built housing), recently added a room to her apartment. Then the municipality required her to build a security room. "There is no shelter in my building, and I am not aware of any public shelters in my immediate neighborhood. I have my security room, but I have no idea what my neighbors will do in an emergency. I don't keep supplies at home. If there is an emergency, I will buy things," she said. Raymond Haddad, who lives in a cooperative apartment building in the German Colony, said his building had a shelter in the basement. He said the shelter was clean and ready for an emergency. "No one stores anything there, but it cannot be reached within 90 seconds [the time people had during the First Gulf War from the end of the siren to when the Scud missiles fell]," said Haddad. Itzik from Beit Hakerem also lives in a cooperative apartment building with a shelter in the basement. "We have a house committee, and it makes sure the shelter is in order," he said. WHY IS it important for us as citizens to be aware and prepared? The truth is that no matter how well prepared the municipality and the state are, in an emergency a lot will depend on how well we individuals are prepared to cope. And we may very well be left to our own devices during the initial aftermath. The city's Security and Emergency Department is responsible for security in the city's schools and kindergartens, employing more than 500 security guards throughout the city for this purpose, as well as security for municipal facilities, preparation for winter emergencies, assisting the police in seam neighborhoods, assisting and organizing security in sensitive areas (such as Atarot and the promenade in East Talpiot), coordinating emergency plans with the community administrations and administering the municipal budget for the Civil Guard. It prepares and ensures the operation of necessary infrastructure during emergencies, in coordination with the Civilian Emergency Administration (Melah), Civil Defense (Haga) and the Home Front Command. This includes providing personnel, storage and equipment to these bodies. "I have storerooms with NIS 20 million worth of equipment of the Home Front Command that would be used for Jerusalem residents in times of emergency," notes Ilani. "I also have workers who will be available to aid the Command to distribute supplies and equipment. "In an emergency, we would work with the Home Front Command," Ilani explains. "Generally, in emergencies, we are under the command of the police; but in certain circumstances, this could be under the command of the army. Our immediate responsibility is to save lives. We can provide equipment - such as tractors or bulldozers - like we did in the Versailles wedding hall collapse [in 2001]. After that, we are responsible for clearing roads and making sure that Jerusalemites have water, food and shelter. The fire department is also our responsibility. "We have divided the city into sectors," Ilani continues. "In an emergency, the various community administrations will have their own headquarters - 12 are already in place, and another 11 are being set up. The municipality sees the community administrations as its first line of defense in the neighborhoods. They know their neighborhoods and will be on the spot even if their area is cut off from the rest of the city. Since we have limited resources, we decided not to invest in storing equipment in neighborhoods. Magen David Adom and Zaka [Disaster Victims Identification] have emergency equipment and staff in various neighborhoods, and many of our senior citizens' homes can be used as emergency medical facilities should the need arise." But the department's "baby," according to Ilani, is its municipal public shelters. The municipality is fully responsible for maintaining and operating 206 public shelters around the city, including the eastern part. In 2008, some NIS 100,000 was budgeted for these shelters. Before the Six Day War, Jerusalem buildings were not required by law to have shelters. There were places to take cover against sniper fire or artillery from the Jordanian Legion, but there were no real basement shelters in residential buildings. There are still some 200 of these older "take cover" areas around the city. After the war, every new building was required to have a shelter in the basement. They had to be made of reinforced concrete, with special blast doors or windows. To serve those living in older buildings, the municipality built public shelters in older neighborhoods, also of reinforced concrete with special blast doors and windows. "Our public shelters are not for long-term use," Ilani relates. "They do not have sleeping facilities. The Home Front Command, which sets the rules for defense, requires sleeping facilities only for shelters in the North. What we are required to have in public shelters are ventilation, running water, toilets and toilet paper, first-aid kits, fire extinguishers and stretchers. Obviously, 206 public shelters are not enough for the entire population of Jerusalem, but they are intended only for those living in older buildings without shelters or protected rooms." During the First Gulf War in 1991, Israelis received only 90 seconds warning before the Scuds fell on the country. For most people living in large apartment buildings, that was not enough time to make it down to the common shelter in the basement. So following that war, it was decided that all new residential construction would have to include a security room in the apartment made of reinforced concrete that can withstand blast force and is sealed against biological and chemical weapons. Public buildings have protected spaces. The security room within an individual's apartment or home is his or her responsibility with respect to maintaining preparedness. In cooperative buildings with a common shelter in the basement, in accordance with a 1980 Jerusalem law, it is the responsibility of the residents to ensure that the shelter is not being used as a storeroom for residents' possessions. They must keep it well maintained so that in the event of an emergency it will be available for use. However, public shelters and those in cooperative buildings can be used for other purposes during non-emergencies, such as cultural activities, prayer, sports, youth clubs or senior citizen facilities. Use of public shelters for other purposes must be approved by a special committee. Use of shelters in cooperative buildings must have the consent of all residents. The equipment and furniture needed for this secondary use cannot take up more than 20 percent of the space, and the area must be able to be converted back to a fully usable shelter within two to six hours in the event of an emergency. "The state has assured us that there will be adequate time to prepare, and those using shelters for secondary purposes will receive notices to evacuate within the prescribed time limit," Ilani asserted. In Jerusalem went with Shlomo Ben-Ami, the municipal coordinator for emergency and Melah, to visit two such public shelters. Public shelter 971, at Rehov Hapalmah 14, is home to the Ron Gal Center, a music therapy center for special-needs children. The shelter is clean and attractively decorated, with the required toilets, ventilation, emergency equipment, etc. It even has a kitchen. But the musical equipment takes up a good deal of space, and one wonders if in a sudden emergency there would be enough time to get it out or rearranged. The second public shelter, No. 984, on the corner of Yael and Yiftah streets in Baka, is used as the Center for Tap Dancing and Flamenco. The center had undergone recent renovations, and Ben-Ami found that the lock had been changed and he could not open the door with his key. (The municipality maintains keys to all public shelters and is responsible for opening them in emergencies.) "I was here less than a month ago," Ben-Ami says, "and the key worked. The municipality should have been given the new key." However, nearly a month later, Ben-Ami still had not received the new key. "I expect to get it next week," he says. THE USE of shelters for secondary purposes is based on the premise that there will be at least two to six hours to prepare. Yet sometimes there is little or no warning. Ziona, a veteran Jerusalemite, recalls the Yom Kippur War and the utter confusion when the siren went off. "We lived in Rehavia at the time. I was walking home from synagogue with my young son. We had no warning. No time to prepare. The siren went off, and I thought 'This must be a mistake.' Thankfully, Jerusalem was not under attack. But had it been, I am not sure what I would have done. We didn't have a shelter in our building, and I had no idea where the public shelter was," she said. As for shelters in cooperative buildings, here too there can be problems. Sue, who lives in an eight-story building in Givat Mordechai that was built in the early 1970s, admitted she doesn't have a key to her building's shelter, even though all residents should have one. "I've been living here for more than two years, and no one ever offered me a key," she says. "I guess I should have asked, but I never did. I have been down in the shelter. It has running water and the toilet works. But some of my neighbors are using it to store their things. Some of the stuff is moldy, and one neighbor told me it might even belong to people who moved out years ago. People claim that the house committee voted years ago to allow residents to store some of their belongings in the shelter. To tell you the truth, I live on the top floor and in case of a missile attack, I don't think I could make it down to the shelter in time. I plan to go out of my apartment and stand in the stairwell," she says. At Elroi 5a, a 12-story building with 35 apartments in Old Katamon built in the mid-1970s, the shelter is exemplary. It is clean and well maintained and includes a working toilet, drinking water supply, fire extinguishers and even a shower. There are some chairs and a sofa stored there, which would actually be useful in times of emergency. There are a few stored succa panels in the back, but they take up hardly any space. The problem at Elroi 5a is the emergency escape exit. "Our regular staircase is not constructed of reinforced concrete," explains Dafna Ben-Yohanan, head of the house committee. "So we have an emergency escape exit of reinforced concrete that runs from the 12th floor all the way down to the ground floor." This is a series of small vertical cubes, stacked one on top of another, with metal hatches in the floor for ladders, which enable residents to go down to safety. "Our residents used these areas as protected spaces during the First Gulf War," Ben-Yohanan recalls. "But today, many residents are using them as storerooms, as there are none in the building. We [the committee] have repeatedly asked residents to remove their possessions, but they don't do it. We have sent dozens of notices but to no avail. If there were ever a real emergency, such as a fire, there would be a big problem with the emergency escape exit. This is really a question of pikuah nefesh [life and death]." The municipal spokesman's office says the municipality does regular inspections of shelters in cooperative buildings and issues warning letters to offenders. If these warnings are not complied with, the municipality can take residents to court and they can be fined. All shelters in cooperative buildings in Jerusalem were inspected during 2007, and warning letters were issued where necessary. In 2008, the municipality received 561 complaints concerning the state of shelters in cooperative buildings, many relating to neighbors storing their belongings in the shelters. The municipal inspection department inspected 1,870 shelters and issued 7,236 warning letters - 124 of which resulted in fines. Residents who want to complain about their shelters should call 106 and ask for municipal inspection shelters (pikuah ironi). "In my experience, warning letters from the municipality are very effective," Ilani notes. "In 99% of the cases, residents clear out their stuff without the municipality's having to take them to court. Even though the Home Front Command today does not recommend running to a shelter if there is only a very short time [less than two minutes] to take cover, shelters are still relevant and the municipality will continue to maintain them for times of emergency."