The national flood forecaster isn't functioning, and some 20 towns are paying private firms to make projections – leaving towns that can't afford that in danger
The National Flood Forecast Center, established to warn of harm to life and property, is not functioning and facing closure. Haaretz has learned that the center is short on both funding and personnel. Some 20 municipalities have decided to stop waiting for the critical information from the state, and are paying private firms to make precise flood projections for their cities. Thus, only the richer municipalities can allow themselves to prepare for flooding.
In July, Haaretz reported that the center is operated by three employees, that it does not warn of flooding in the cities, and that the Finance Ministry places obstacles to budgeting it. The Water Authority acknowledged in a statement: “If no proper budgetary framework is found, the center will not be able to operate.”
The center was established in 2019 after the drowning of ten cadets at the Bnei Zion military preparatory school. According to the Water Authority’s definition, this was supposed to be a coordination center in charge of publishing warnings about “stream flows, floods, road blockages and overflows to emergency and government authorities in Israel, professional agencies and the general public.”
The Water Authority and the Meteorological Service have prepared detailed plans for the center’s operation, according to which it will be manned by five full-time civil servants who will specialize in the subject, at a cost of 2 million shekels ($630,000) a year. But the Finance Ministry found no funding for the center, claiming that the Water Authority has sufficient allocated funds to use for the purpose.
Flood prediction is a specialty that requires not only a rainfall forecast, but expertise in meteorology and hydrology, as well as an understanding of the uses of soil to limit flooding. Also needed is the ability to connect the amount of rain to the type of soil the water will hit: An identical amount of water in north Tel Aviv and the south side of the city, on a plane or an incline, saturated ground or dry, will lead to completely different outcomes.
In winter 2020, a year after the center was established, seven people died in floods around the country. In response, it was decided to replace the Hebrew University students it employed with subcontractors, to be trained for two weeks. It was claimed that this would upgrade the center and its professionalism. In practice, the employees were replaced only three months ago, and they provide the municipalities no projections regarding floods within their boundaries. They warn about broad regions, such as “chance of flooding along the coast,” or “danger of flooding in the Triangle cities.”
Into the resulting void come private firms that provide flood prediction services. Among others, the cities of Hod Ha’sharon, Rishon Letzion, Ramat Gan, Ness Ziona, Bat Yam, Holon and Jerusalem pay a private firm. Tel Aviv employs two. The firms provide hourly projections of rainfall within the city, at times segmented into sub-districts, and talks with weather forecasters on updates and marking at-risk areas in the city. On the other hand, municipalities such as Nahariya, Petah Tikva, Kiryat Ekron and all Arab municipalities rely on the broad, general prediction provided by the state.
“We receive information from the center and pass it all on to the authorities, but we hear from them that it’s not enough. They need more pinpoint data to know what part of the city is at risk of flooding,” explains the head of the safety administration at the Local Government Center, Yohai Wajima.
Head of the local council of Kiryat Ekron, Hovav Zabari, is frustrated with the situation, but isn’t contracting a private firm, insisting that the municipalities “know the situation and prepare as best they can.” According to him, “We need better forecasts from the state, to make sure it’s precise, and not have every city hire its own private company on its own. The point is for the central government to give us the backing. Human lives are at stake.”
At city hall in Baqa al-Gharbiya, substitute Mayor Mohammed Majadli also tells of dependence upon the state. “We don’t have private companies. What the state tells us – that’s the preparation we have. We keep deploying the forces everywhere these days because we don’t know exactly when there’s a forecast for flooding.”
Hod Ha’sharon Mayor Amir Kochavi turned this year to a private company to give him precise forecasting. “Due to the risk of flooding in our city we need all the data we can get,” he says. “We have data every half-hour, divided into different areas in the city – and that’s how I know exactly where to deploy forces and what to do. This is a basic service the state should provide for floods, just as with Covid the state organized war rooms.”
Eli Jean, head of the municipal hotline in Rishon Letzion, explained that the decision to go private is viewed by the city as vital for saving lives. “We realized that we must take care of ourselves and create a municipal forecast center,” he says. “We’ll provide precise, detailed forecasts for ourselves.”
One of these forecast firms is Meteo-Tech. CEO Dr. Noah Wolfson said they work with the Education Ministry as well as cities. “We provide cities the personal service they need. We know the people, the layout of the city, phone them daily and warn them. Rainfall is not a necessary condition for flooding, and there are a lot of variables to account for – and that’s why you need data,” he says.
MK Merav Ben Ari (Yesh Atid), chairwoman of the Knesset Public Security Committee, said she will work to get the center budgeted, but the Finance Ministry declined comment, and it is unclear how the MK’s plan can be realized.