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Massive Snowstorm Shuts Down Greece

February 21, 2004

Note: An earlier version of this story appeared Friday, Feb. 13.

( Research Service)- An unprecedented nationwide snowstorm has dealt up the latest surprise in Greece’s unusual Olympic year. The blizzard, which started on Thursday and continues in many places, is wreaking havoc with transportation, utilities, and public safety in general. It has also given politicians and journalists a great opportunity for televised sparring. The charges- as usual with the Greeks- are unpreparedness, disorganization and tactical errors.

However, in this case the blame can only fall on up above as Greeks wait and make the best of this uncharacteristic event. Global warming may be on the rise elsewhere, but there are no signs of it here today in the heart of the sultry Mediterranean.While snowstorms are not infrequent in northern Greece and mountainous areas of the Peloponnese and Crete, Athens and the southern islands usually escape with only winter rain. Yet this time they could not evade what TV station MEGA momentously has christened “the white siege” in live reports tonight.

On ET 3 TV, meanwhile, a grim-looking Danish couple interviewed in Athens stated, “we came here for the sun- but even Copenhagen is better than this!”

However, they had no option but to brave it out in the frigid capital, as the new Eleutheris Venizelos airport was closed, stranding up to 10,000 international passengers. The Greek government declared a state of emergency, canceling all ferries as well and ordering citizens to stay in their homes.

Combative television journalists took it out on government ministers live on the major networks tonight. One from TV MEGA, bemoaning the lack of a unified government response and the apparent shortage of snowplows demanded, “…we knew from Tuesday that this would happen, why did we not act properly?”

“We knew it and were prepared as much as possible,” replied Civil Protection Minister Nikos Bistis, who blamed drivers for attempting to forge on without snow chains. Drivers clogged the national roads from Athens-Patras and Thessaloniki-Athens, bringing traffic to a standstill. Jackknifed trucks slid out on the snow added to this scene of winter carnage. Hundreds of drivers had to sleep overnight in their cars in the sub-zero temperatures and mounting snowdrifts, though apparently the TV journalists who came to film their ordeal live didn’t.

Funnily enough, major politicians eyeing next month’s elections also came out to offer their moral support to the stranded motorists.

George Papandreou, heir of Greece’s biggest political dynasty, found his schedule suddenly open for just such a trip when the snow caused the cancellation of his own resignation ceremony. Papandreou, who has been trying to breathe new life into the ruling PASOK party, is stepping down as foreign minister to take the party mantle from Prime Minister Costas Simitis before the March 7th elections.

Despite the action on the highways, said Bistis, the biggest danger was drivers who tried to pass by on smaller roads, ending up “hurtling towards death.”

While no driving deaths are reported, one tragedy happened when an 85 year-old woman living on an Aegean island died. She was apparently trying to light a fire when the electricity went out, and burned the house down. Many small Aegean islands lost their electricity due to the snow.

The media took pride in summarizing the records that fell across the country. By Friday, there were 2 meters of snow in many places around Athens, 50 centimeters in the city center, and temperatures were down to minus 7 degrees Celsius- all records. In Patras, at the head of the Peloponnese, it snowed for first time in 22 years. Many islands received their largest snowfalls ever. And even on the tiny island of Gavdos- two hours south of Crete and the southernmost point in Europe- it snowed for the first time in 62 years.

Northern Greece recorded bitterly cold temperatures, as low as minus 15 degrees Celsius. Less snowfall has been recorded here than in other parts of the country, but fish breeders are worried about frozen ponds. In a bizarre miracle, meanwhile, Thessaloniki and eastern Macedonia completely escaped, although everywhere south, west and east of it the storm was raging.

Greek children, of course, were the happiest ones: they are temporarily rid of school.

The winter wonderland was not so wonderful for neighboring Turkey, where the storm wreaked havoc on the coast and left Istanbul covered by 30 cm. of snow. As in Greece, airports, roads and schools were closed. The biggest tragedy happened when a cargo ship sank in the Black Sea, near the mouth of the Bosporus. The vessel, a 592-foot coal freighter registered in Cambodia, was pummeled by 55-mph winds and waves approaching 20 feet. It sank, and the weather conditions forced Turkish authorities to call off the search for the 20 missing crewmembers after 3 hours.

In the general mayhem, 2 other cargo ships collided, leaving one crew member missing, and 2 more ships ran aground. The tempestuous Bosporus- dangerous even at the best of times– was closed to traffic for a second day on Friday.

Besides the immediate damage and aggravation, the snowstorm promises to have catastrophic results for the vital winter agriculture industry in Greece and Turkey.

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