Europeans Struggle Under Record Cold Snap

Published February 6, 2012 4:45PM (EST)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Overwhelmed by deep snow and harsh temperatures, some countries in Europe closed down schools and struggled to run public transport Monday, as post-snow rains caused a dam to collapse in Bulgaria, flooding a village and killing at least four.

Another four people were killed by floods in southern Bulgaria, and 10 people are missing, authorities said.

Europeans across the continent were digging out from heavy snow after a week of bitter cold in which the number of dead — most of them homeless — continued to rise by the day. Temperatures have fallen as low as minus 33 Fahrenheit (minus 36 Celsius) in Ukraine, the hardest-hit country.

The big freeze has caused traffic chaos throughout Europe, blocking roads, shutting down airports, and trapping thousands in remote mountain villages in the Balkans.

But it has also offered opportunities for snowy fun: Ice skaters in the Netherlands were hopeful they could stage a race that hasn't happened in more than a decade; children in Rome and along the usually temperate Adriatic coast in Croatia frolicked in rare snow; and Bosnians in the capital, Sarajevo, spontaneously organized a winter "Olympics" in which they skied down main streets and leapt out of windows into deep snow banks.

The Serbian government late on Sunday declared an emergency situation, saying the intense snowfall has jeopardized normal functioning. Emergency officials said that 70,000 people were cut off by the heavy snow.

"I hope the emergency measures will lead to better functioning of the rescue efforts," said emergency official Goran Nikolic.

They included shutting down all primary schools and high schools for a week to save power and keep children safe. Thrilled, hundreds of kids filled the parks in the capital, Belgrade, sledding and making snow angels.

Schools will also be closed in Rome on Tuesday, as Italy copes with unusually heavy snow for the Mediterranean country. So far, ten deaths have been linked to winter weather, including two people who were crushed under a collapsed roof south of Rome, and a 91-year-old woman in the northeast port of Trieste who was knocked down by strong winds.

In the north, rescuers had to pluck people from their homes, as piles of snow reached 3 meters (10 feet) in some areas. In Milan, Italy's fashion and financial capital, temperatures fell to minus 12 Celsius (10 Fahrenheit) on Monday, and the authorities opened a section of the city subway to shelter some 100 homeless people.

In Bosnia, hundreds of villages were stuck behind snowed-in roads and avalanches and authorities were using helicopters to evacuate the sick and deliver food. Authorities said they have had no contact for 72 hours with about 120 people in the central village of Zijemlja, where residents have no electricity or phone lines.

"There are several small hamlets with children and elderly people — and we are not able to help them," said Radovan Palavstra, mayor of the nearby city of East Mostar.

Emergency official Milimir Doder said his teams must clear 20 kilometers (12 miles) of road before they can get to the village.

In Sarajevo, thousands of people trudged to work on Monday, with only occasional buses braving the deep snow. Volunteers, meanwhile, cleared tram lines themselves.

Authorities told residents to keep their trash on their balconies because no one would be able to pick it up before the city streets are cleared, which could take a few days.

Young people in several neighborhoods boarded down snow-covered streets or cruised the main street towed behind cars on skis. Others competed with videos on YouTube to show the craziest jump into the snow from second floor apartments — most of them wearing only bathing suits. In one neighborhood, residents mocked local politicians by trying to build the ugliest snowmen in their likenesses.

In Poland, the Interior Ministry reported Monday that nine people died of hypothermia over the past 24 hours. Two elderly people were found frozen in Serbia and Bosnia, and Croatia reported 4 snow-related deaths.

Ukraine's Emergency Situation Ministry said Monday the country's death toll now stands at 135, including many homeless people. Some 2,000 have been hospitalized for frostbite or hypothermia, it said.

Officials in Bulgaria have declared a state of emergency in much of the south. Civil defense chief Nikolai Nikolov said a 2.5-meter (8-foot) flood hit 700 houses in the village of Bisser, near the Greek border, after the dam on the Ivanovo reservoir collapsed.

Bulgarian civil defense officials warned that two other bigger dams in the region, Ivaylovgrad and Studena, are on the brink of overflowing and urged people there to be ready for an evacuation.

In the Netherlands, however, Europe's deep freeze means the country's almost mythical "Eleven Cities Tour" ice skating marathon could be staged later this month for the first time in 15 years, organizers said Monday.

The race, held along a 125-mile (200-kilometer) network of canals connecting 11 towns and cities in Friesland province, would cause a national frenzy, drawing thousands of participants and more than a million spectators. It was last held in 1997.

Also in the Netherlands, a man tried to take advantage of the weather and toss a snowball with a package of marijuana in it over the wall of a prison. The snowball crumbled and the man was arrested in The Hague, police said Monday.

The national weather service forecasts freezing temperatures at least through Friday, fueling hopes that the ice race would go ahead.


Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Mike Corder in Amsterdam, Maria Danilova in Kiev, Ukraine, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Vanessa Gera and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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