Times of crisis are inevitably accompanied by controversy. The very public finger-pointing that is underway in Israel regarding the recent devastating fire in the Carmel is to be expected. The arguments between Israel’s national and regional authorities, as well as central agencies in the non-profit sector, create a lot of media noise but they also must be seen as part of an invaluable process of introspection, which, it can be hoped, will lead to improvements and changes in fire and crisis readiness.
Yet one of the vitally important lessons that must be learned this time around is the central role of scientific research in making educated decisions about the future safety of the residents of Israel’s north. The magnitude of this disaster – and the nightmare of how it could have been even worse – demand a careful accounting of how policy at every level must be revisited and revised based on the most rigorous science, in order to keep people, land, and infrastructure safe from disaster.
All throughout the long weekend of the fire, as my senior administrators and I kept vigil at the University of Haifa, the entire leadership of the country was centered on our campus. Using the campus facilities as national crisis headquarters, the authorities oversaw the firefighting efforts, which were augmented by generous aid from abroad. Less well known is the fact that our University personnel were quite literally on the front line, extending humanitarian aid to students and faculty, offering emotional support to the entire population for loss and bereavement, speaking to the world media about the unique ecology of the Carmel region, and offering urgent trauma support on behalf of local authorities. All of this went on while we ourselves hunkered down in crisis planning mode, discussing the “what ifs” should the fire reach the University campus.
Even though the fire – which came within 150 meters of the campus – thankfully did not reach our facilities, the University community was deeply affected. We lost two students in the tragic bus fire, together with three alumni and two students’ spouses. More than 400 students and faculty members had homes damaged or destroyed by the fire. In their preliminary assessment, the University maintenance department identified numerous areas on campus that require fire safety upgrading – from renovations to the 30-year-old Eshkol Tower to appropriate rehabilitation of the brush areas surrounding the campus – all of which the University administration will address in the coming months. The once-breathtaking Carmel Forest views that had served as the most valued “perk” for our glass-enclosed offices and classrooms now server as a reminder of the fragility of our situation atop Mount Carmel.
In the midst of this planning process to ensure the safety of our students and staff, we have made it a parallel priority to focus even more efforts on the research and study that will provide best-practice guidelines for supporting the Carmel ecosystem, while preparing protocols for supporting our population more effectively in times of crisis. These are just two of the many areas where ongoing research at the University can – and must – make a major contribution to the future safety of Israel’s north. Our experts in forestry and environmental science have cautioned against hasty, reflexive decisions regarding next steps in rebuilding the region, and will continue to offer results of their top-tier research to ensure that such a disaster does not recur. At the same time, our accomplished and experienced mental health experts will continue to lead the national conversation about support and treatment for those affected by trauma and loss.
Too often, our political leadership seeks the quickest responses to major crises, rather than those with the best prospects for long-term success. The University of Haifa is uniquely positioned to have a leading voice in current and future conversations about rebuilding and healing. Let us hope that our leaders have the insight to appreciate the vitally important role that the expertise of our academic community can and must play going forward.
Professor Aaron Ben-Ze’ev is the President of the University of Haifa.