Nahum Barnea

Israel not a third world country

Op-ed: Snow storms paralyze major cities like London, Washington and no one cries out 'failure'

Moses brought many troubles upon us when he led us to this piece of land, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. In one area he hit the target: The weather. Throughout most of the year it's between pleasant to endurable here, and mainly stable and foreseen. The forces of nature, which often go wild in other countries, turn into poodles when they visit us. Sometimes a heat wave, sometimes hail, sometimes frost in the valleys. Not a big deal.


Once in 50 or 100 years we are hit by a real storm, according to northern European standards. That's what happened here over the weekend. The result was cold, wet and painful. Hundreds of thousands suffered from power outages, some for days. Roads were blocked, rivers burst their banks, many were in need of help, and the help didn't always arrive.


Immediately, like a conditioned reflex, radio and television channels were conquered by the magic word: Failure. It was immediately followed by its young, vibrant sibling: The state commission of inquiry. The finger was pointed at the Israel Electric Corporation, the police, the Home Front Command, the welfare system, mayors. "Israel is a third world country," complained commentators and instant experts on natural disasters.


I doubt if they know much about what happens in real life, in the first world and in the third world.


I covered the two natural disasters which hit the United States in the past decade – Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Nearly 1,900 people died in Katrina; Sandy had several dozen fatalities. Katrina was mainly a man-made disaster. The Corps of Engineers failed to properly reinforce the dams that should have prevented the flooding of New Orleans, and the Bush administration did not rush to help the victims. In Sandy the authorities offered a quick response, but it was not enough to prevent the damage. Tens of thousands along the East Coast were cut off from power supply. Many had to wait weeks before being reconnected. In some places the damage has not been repaired till this very day.


But why talk about superstorms? Cities located close to the Arctic Circle, in Canada, in the north of the US or in northern Europe, function very well even when they are covered with heavy snow. It's their winter routine. Other respectable cities like London, like Washington, become paralyzed when hit by a storm of the kind that hit us this weekend. The airports shut down. Roads are blocked. The power supply is cut off, as is the Internet, and no one cries out "failure."


As for the Third World, an electric technician will only get drenched in snow after the disconnected citizen fills his pockets with a bribe; in Israel the technician arrives, and apologizes for not coming earlier; and soldiers and police officers visited homes not in order to plunder them but in order to ask if they can help. No, Israel is not a third world country.


No zero faults in dealing with Mother Nature

The snow also hit the State Comptroller's Office. From besieged Jerusalem, the office announced it would appoint a team to look into the storm's failures. An inquiry is what the state comptroller is meant to do as part of his job. The problem is not in the inquiry, but in how fast this was made public. The comptroller appears to be trying to ride a populist wave of one day, to steal a headline.


We should be allowed demand that in his inquiry this time the comptroller won't settle for scolding and advice, but will attach a price tag to each piece of advice. Are electric wires underground better than electric wires above the ground? That's nice, but how much will the dig cost? Will pruning trees before winter all over Israel reduce the chance of power outages? Good, but what's the cost? Will every city more than 400 meters (1,300 feet) high be required to purchase snowplows at a quantity capable of dealing with 1 meter (3.3 feet) of snow? Fine, but who will pay for it? Will every city, upon every weather warning, set up combined emergency headquarters with the Home Front Command, the municipality, the police, the Social Services Ministry, Magen David Adom and the firefighting services? Great, but what will happen after the weather forecast is not verified twice? Will private companies replace the Electric Corp? Awesome, but only a gullible person will believe that a private company will prepare for snow free of charge.


It's not the snow that's threatening Israel, it's other mass hazards in the list of natural disasters, an earthquake, and of course the blow the home front is expected to suffer in case of a war. For these the establishment must prepare, and prepare seriously.


The positive side of an event of this kind is the opportunity it gives people to help others. Israelis reveal their best qualities in times of need: They are involved, resourceful, multi-active. And there was a positive side, perhaps even brave, in Netanyahu's decision to allow Israel Railways to operate trains from Jerusalem during Shabbat. I doubt such a decision would have been possible in a coalition built on the haredi parties.


In dealing with Mother Nature there are no zero faults. This doesn't give comfort to those who spent the weekend in a cold house or stranded in a car. But the sun has come out, and the suffering will turn into an experience, and the failure will bother us like last year's snow.



פרסום ראשון: 12.16.13, 11:38
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