Mother nature and humility

The storm that hit the country last week was uncommon in its intensity. The last similar storm occurred two decades ago.

Snow relief efforts plough 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Snow relief efforts plough 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Western societies pride themselves on their cutting edge technologies, their impressive self-reliance, their strong belief in man’s ability to overcome adversity and master nature. There is, therefore, a very human tendency to seek out a guilty party at times when basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and telephone and Internet service break down.
How can it be, many have asked, that government and municipal officials were caught so unprepared by the blizzard that struck the region and all but paralyzed cities such as Jerusalem and Safed? How is it that tens of thousands of households went without electricity for days on end – including on Shabbat? How is it that snow blocked major transportation arteries – including the entrances to hospitals? Knesset committees headed by MKs Miri Regev (Likud) and Eli Yishai (Shas) will hold joint meetings this week to scrutinize the operations of our national and local authorities, in an attempt to determine whether proper preparations were made in anticipation of the storm and whether emergency services were properly coordinated. State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said he would examine the responses of the Israel Electric Corporation, Israel Police, public transport companies, municipalities and welfare systems. The lack of preparedness was “a problem on a national level,” Shapira said.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) also said the country was unprepared and that his warnings ahead of the storm fell on deaf ears.
But these legitimate calls for an evaluation of our emergency services – particularly the decision in December 2012 to close the National Emergency Authority and to split its functions between the Home Front Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry – should not deteriorate into a politicized attempt to pin the blame on specific individuals. For instance, the attack on the Israel Electric Corporation’s CEO, who was abroad on vacation during most of the storm, smacks of demagogy. What could the man have done had he been here? On rare occasion, man stands helpless before the ravages of nature. Extraordinary upheavals of the elements such as tsunamis, hurricanes, mudslides and, yes, blizzards, remind us of our limitations, of precisely how vulnerable we are. We would like to think that it is not so, that our existence is not quite so precarious, that if we only had prepared better we would be able to confront nature at its worst at the cost of a minimal blow to basic comforts that we as citizens of developed, technologically advanced societies take for granted. The sobering reality, however, is that we are much weaker than our hubris permits us to admit. Often it is a matter of luck – or of providence for those with a more spiritual bent – that saves us. Sometimes we are less fortunate.
This is not to say that we must give in to a fatalistic passivity and reconcile ourselves to our weaknesses. While it is hardly unheard of in extreme weather that even in the most advanced countries tens of thousands are disconnected from electricity for days on end, we must strive for improvement. It might be economically impractical to replace all above-ground power lines with the underground variety. But perhaps we can shorten the time it takes to repair downed lines or provide options such as generators so that the elderly and the very young are not exposed to the brutal cold. And perhaps more can be done to improve access to hospitals so that fewer women are forced to give birth in cars stranded in snow banks.
But in the end much of our preparedness for extremely rare natural phenomena such as the blizzard that visited Israel this weekend boils down to simple cost/benefit analysis.
The storm that hit the country last week was uncommon in its intensity. The last similar storm occurred two decades ago.
With all the discomfort caused to the tens of thousands of households that went without electricity and the commuters who were unable to travel, we must consider the tremendous investment required to purchase the winter service vehicles, to place power lines under ground, to adapt public transportation to extreme weather. And even after doing all this we would have no guarantees. We must recognize our limitations