By DAVID SHAMAH
HAIFA (The Times of Israel)–The world’s largest and most advanced “fortified hospital” was unveiled this week at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. The 2,000 bed underground hospital is designed to keep patients and staff safe dozens of meters below ground even if missiles and rockets are falling above ground – in case the city ever faces the kind of attack it did during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. It is also designed to keep out chemical or biological weapons.
Missile attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas were the impetus behind the construction of the Sammy Ofer Northern Regional Underground Emergency Hospital at the campus of Rambam. Over the past decade, missile attacks have devastated both the far north and south of Israel. During the war in 2006, and during “hot” periods over the past decade in southern Israel when Hamas terrorists have dispatched dozens of weapons a day against targets in the Negev, both Rambam and Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon (where a similar, but smaller underground facility is under construction) were forced to move essential operations underground.
The new facility ensures that caregivers will have all the equipment and tools they need to continue caring for patients, and to deal with the influx of patients likely to need treatment in the event that the hospital goes “on line.”
In normal times, the three-level underground structure will be used as a parking facility for up to 1,400 vehicles – itself an important addition to the congested Bat Galim neighborhood the hospital is located in. But built into the walls and floors of the facility are power outlets, connections, air conditioners and heaters, water and filtration systems, and everything else needed to move hospital operations underground. The conversion of the facility from parking lot to hospital will take less than 48 hours, hospital officials said.
Construction of the facility was a major technical and engineering challenge, the officials said. The facility is so deep underground that its lowest portion extends to several meters beneath the water table, and that required the pumping out of millions of liters of water.
When construction began in late 2010, the first stage was the pouring of 7,000 cubic meters of concrete to form the base of the facility – using much of the concrete available in northern and central Israel at the time, with no other concrete available for other projects for days before or after.
The facility’s sides and top are also protected by several meters of concrete, making it impervious to the shock of rocket attacks, and preventing entry of chemical or biological agents.
The hospital was inaugurated at a gala event earlier this week attended, among others, by Deputy Health Minister Ya’akov Litzman, who described the difficulties in getting such a facility built during a period of government cutbacks – and the importance of continued investment in construction and development. “Over the past few years the government cut the Health Ministry’s budget by NIS 95 million,” Litzman said. “The easiest thing to cut from a budget is construction, but this facility shows how important it is not to cut back on construction.”
Much of the event was dedicated to thanking, and remembering, Sammy Ofer, the self-made Israeli multi-millionaire who passed away in 2011; Ofer donated nearly $20 million to build the facility. Litzman, along with the other speakers including Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav and Rambam Hospital CEO Professor Rafi Beyar, thanked the Ofer family, which was represented by Sammy Ofer’s children Eyal and Idan, and his wife, Aviva.
“No man in Haifa’s history has done as much for the strategic development of Haifa as Sammy Ofer did,” Yahav said. “I was so happy that he was able to participate in the laying of the cornerstone for the hospital in 2008. Not everyone can take good intentions and turn them into reality, but Sammy did.”
Ofer, who lived in London for most of his life, grew up right near the hospital, “and he gave back in a big way. I hope we will never have to use this facility, although with the world the way it is today, who knows what will be,” Yahav added.
Eyal Ofer, the elder son, recalled his father’s life and legacy. “With his 10fingers, he rose to international achievements, but like every true and veteran seaman, after sailing the world he came home,” Eyal Ofer said. “My brother and I grew up in Haifa and [our family has] remained faithful to Haifa.”
The event brought to a close the third international Rambam Summit, which featured dozens of speakers and workshops discussing various issues in medical and emergency care.