What lies beneath the surface

Tel Aviv currently has 236 public-use shelters and most residents don't even know where they are.

shelter ventilation 88 248 (photo credit: Yoav Fisher)
shelter ventilation 88 248
(photo credit: Yoav Fisher)
The walls of David Aharony's office are lined with massive floor-to-ceiling maps of Tel Aviv, all with various colored dots and markers. Aharony is the director of the Emergency and Security Department of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, and the maps represent different functions of the department - one shows fire stations, another shows police stations, and there is even one that marks the locations of the local offices of the volunteer police force. On one large map in the corner, clusters of green dots dispersed throughout the neighborhoods of the city, from Jaffa to Tzahala, indicate the locations of all the public bomb shelters (miklatim). Some areas of the map have a much higher concentration of green dots than others, specifically the older neighborhoods of Jaffa, Neveh Tzedek, and Kerem Hateimanim, where the buildings were simply not constructed with adjacent shelters. As Aharony points out, policy pertaining to bomb shelters changed in 1970, whereupon every apartment building in Israel was required to have an attached shelter, usually on the ground floor or in the basement. Today, most of these serve as storage areas for the building residents, and frequently serve as a convenient spot to hide bicycles against the rampant bike thefts in the city. Tel Aviv currently has 236 public-use shelters, which function on a first-come-first-serve basis in the case of an emergency until they reach maximum occupancy, and another 100 school shelters, which function similarly but give preference to the school's children and their families. City residents recognize the shelter entrances - the concrete stairs that appear to lead down to nowhere - but pass them without a second thought. Even though they are frequently overlooked, over two-thirds of the municipal bomb shelters have a second life, offering space to a number of organizations and institutions. Youth movements use the underground rooms for their weekly meetings; artists are given access to use the shelters as studios, and there are even 15 shelters that serve as makeshift underground synagogues. Even the Berglas School of Economics has found an alternative use for its shelter, utilizing the space as a computer lab for graduate students (see sidebar). One shelter in Levinsky Park, by the central bus station in south Tel Aviv, made the news earlier this year. The facility was being used as temporary housing for refugees from Sudan, Eritrea and the Ivory Coast. The area became a center for drugs and petty crime, eventually forcing the evacuation of the refugees in late March. The Levinsky bomb shelter is a notable exception to the roughly 170 "dual-use" shelters around the city, the overwhelming bulk of which are devoted to public services - like one located in a small park off Rehov Jabotinsky, which has been the meeting space for the local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter for at least 12 years. The shelter is as close to "cozy" as a large, windowless concrete box can be. Its walls are decorated with posters displaying words of encouragement and humor, and coffee cups are neatly placed by the sink, ready for their respective owners. Group meetings are held around a large oval table stocked with snacks and AA literature. "Joanna" leads the Friday afternoon AA sessions, a volunteer role she has proudly fulfilled for over eight years. During that time, the municipality has conducted rigorous annual checks on the shelter's equipment and upgraded the facility. In the days between meetings the city has been busy ensuring that the site is functioning according to stringent protocols and practices. Joanna informs Metro that the ongoing work has not affected the group. "There's a closet filled with stuff that we aren't allowed to touch," she stated, but otherwise the shelter's years of continuous use have been virtually uninterrupted. And much as Joanna doesn't sense the government involvement while she sets out cakes and wafer cookies, neither do the young parents and the children above ground, who frolic on the slides and jungle gyms that have been erected on top of the shelter. What city residents are less aware of is the enormous amount of "back office" work that goes into maintaining the shelters. All shelters are subject to a long list of regulations from the IDF's Home Front Command, which include specifications about everything from wall thickness and air purity to the number of people allowed per square meter (one person per half a square meter). All shelters are subject to annual inspections as well, for maintenance and upgrading as mandated by the Home Front Command. The Tel Aviv Municipality has spent over NIS 10 million in the last two years on quality assurance of bathrooms, flooring, air conditioning and general repairs. The organizations that use the space, like Alcoholics Anonymous, are subject to jurisdiction and must be approved by a committee before being allowed access. They also face annual inspections to prove they can vacate the space entirely within four hours should the need arise. One of the more important upgrades is the process of retrofitting all existing underground shelters with extensive filtration systems to protect occupants against non-conventional warfare. The industrial-sized fixtures of pipes and canisters take up an entire wall, effectively serving as large-scale, automated gas masks for 100 people. All the filtration systems, like the one recently installed in a shelter used for daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings, have a manual override setting to ensure clean air even in the case of a power outage. A total of 104 shelters - less than half - have been thus retrofitted. The city hopes to upgrade the remaining shelters in the next few years. Another shelter, located in a tiny park hidden behind the hotels of Rehov Hayarkon, serves as the gathering place for retired police officers from Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Besides serving as a general meeting place, the shelter also functions as a bridge center and temporary gym. As in other shelters, the city has made sure that creature comforts like water sanitation, lighting and waste disposal run smoothly, even in the case of a complete blackout. The group went even further and installed a computer, printer, phone and closets, and hung a flat-screen television on the freshly painted white walls. The retired cops, like every other organization in a dual-use shelter, are subject to strict regulations. Shelters are locked at night to prevent vandalism, but the city will not hesitate to open them up immediately if needed, which means that the police must clear out immediately. It is unclear how efficiently the city can open up the shelters and clear them out, but Aharony predicts that, in the case of an emergency, all public bomb shelters could be made available within a day. Many Tel Aviv residents interviewed by Metro said they were unaware that most shelters had a secondary use, and practically none were aware of the multiple governmental and military protocols and procedures that oversee the use of shelters throughout the city. World Net Daily, an online news and opinion site, conducted an ad hoc survey in Tel Aviv in 2007 and found that over half of the residents they questioned had no idea where their local public shelter was even located. Aharony also points out to Metro that Tel Aviv is a trendsetter among other Israeli cities in maintaining shelter standards, upgrading and sustaining efficient emergency procedures. He attributes this fact to efficient management, which might arguably be true, but Tel Aviv also has financial means that other municipalities do not. This gives the city leeway to install "bonus" features in the shelters, like benches and tiling. While many of the organizations in dual-use shelters benefit from these amenities, and pay a paltry NIS 300 a year in rent, municipal employees in the Emergency and Security Department receive countless complaints from shelter tenants. Unfortunately, the same begrudging attitude that shelter tenants have toward the Department seems to be shared by Israelis above ground in general as well. One department employee informed Metro that he hears daily comments from people about how they believe that bomb shelters are grimy and germ-infested, and they would prefer to stay at home in a time of an emergency. Instead of being irritated at the ignorance, he decided to take people into the shelters to see for themselves. "They come in and see how clean [the shelters] are, and how the walls are painted and the floor is tiled. They're in shock because the miklat is in much better shape than their apartment." "When [city councilor] Dov Henin opened the shelters during the war with Lebanon, did people use them?" he asks rhetorically. After a month the only people who used the shelters were vandals, he says, and the city had to spend money to repaint them. Does the fact that many residents of the city have no idea where the nearest shelter is located make it seem like the large underground shelters are glorified community centers? Could the city spend the millions of shekels it invests in these facilities on other needs like education or the environment? In addition, the fact that every building since 1970 has its own built-in shelter would appear to make public shelters pointless. Finally, given the locals' dismissive opinion of city shelters, why even bother with these massive concrete sardine cans? Aharony does not deny that the question is legitimate, but counters that underground shelters are still the most comfortable and efficient form of protection for the city's residents, especially in longer-term emergencies. His opinion is supported by specialists in the field, and was put to the test in northern Israel during August 2006. Aharony believes that underground shelters are a necessity - as underlined further south these days - regardless of what other alternative forms of protection exist and regardless of the cost. Aharony and his office say they are prepared for the worst, while at the same time dedicated to ensuring shelter users' comfort, even in a calamity. Despite that, many Tel Avivians remain unaware about where shelters are or what state they're in. Regardless of the practice runs and annual inspections, the shelters have never truly been put to the test, and it is unclear if they will function efficiently, particularly in a surprise attack - especially for those who live in buildings erected before 1970. There is really only one way to accurately assess the effectiveness of the shelters, and nobody wants to explore that option.