After seven people were killed and more than 100 injured following a short and vehement storm that struck the area of Halkidiki in northern Greece on Wednesday night, there was concern that the European emergency number 112, which could have contributed to timely evacuations, is not working.
The victims of the stormy weather were mostly foreign nationals: two elderly Czech tourists who were killed when strong winds and floodwaters swept away their travel trailer in Sozopoli; a Romanian woman and an 8-year-old boy, who both died after a roof collapsed on a restaurant in Nea Plagia; and a man and young boy, both Russians, who were killed after a tree fell near their hotel in the seaside town of Potidea.
The seventh victim was a 62-year-old Greek fisherman. Reported missing on Wednesday afternoon, his body was found Thursday evening off the coast of Nea Kallikrateia.
Scores more people were injured, with many suffering head injuries as dozens of trees were uprooted by gale-force winds. Video footage of local streets showed felled trees and overturned motorcycles.
The crisis was the first real test for Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government. The General Secretariat for Civil Protection and regional authorities in northern Greece had been put on alert from Wednesday evening after the National Meteorological Service (EMY) warned of gale-force storms in central and northern Greece.
As a state of emergency was declared in Halkidiki on Thursday, Mitsotakis cancelled all his planned meetings so that he could be in constant contact with the relevant ministers.
Later in the day, state inspectors were quickly dispatched to the area to assess the scale of the damage to agricultural cultivations and infrastructure.
Mitsotakis also ordered the government spokesman Stelios Petsas to take the necessary action to ensure that the European emergency number 112 is fully functional. A plan to overhaul the secretariat, which Mitsotakis heralded several months ago, is also to move ahead.
A year after the July 2018 Mati fires, the fallout of the Halkidiki storms demonstrated that the 112 hotline continues to be faulty. There appear to be two key problems: the system of automatic geolocation is not yet properly operational; neither is the function which sends out warnings by text message to the cellphones of people in danger.
According to sources, the geolocation of those calling 112 can take up to 15 minutes under the current system; once it is upgraded, as authorities had pledged to do by early this year, it will be immediate.
A week after last summer’s catastrophic fires in Mati, eastern Attica, the then leadership of the General Secretariat of Civil Protection had rejected as “unacceptable” complaints by New Democracy of delays in making the European emergency number fully operational.
At the time, the secretariat had said the number would be operational by the beginning of 2019.