‘Unprecedented’ snow wreaks havoc

After one of the worst weekends of the past 40 years which saw hundreds of travelers stranded on snowbound highways and enough snow in central Athens to reduce traffic to a trickle clanking with snow chains, the weather is expected to gradually improve today. On Saturday, Prime Minister Costas Simitis described the bad weather as «unprecedented.» He then said the last time Greece had been similarly affected was in 1963, «but then conditions were milder.» «I want to tell all citizens to be careful,» he said after discussing the state of affairs with Interior Minister Costas Skandalidis. «They must understand that, although the extreme weather conditions… are pretty to observe, they involve great danger.» Despite the continuing snowfall – which, on Saturday, caused Attica and the neighboring provinces of Boeotia and Evia to be declared in a state of emergency – workers using heavy machinery managed to get the national road from Athens to Lamia functioning early yesterday. This allowed thousands of drivers who had either been trapped behind broken-down lorries on the worst stretches of the highway or who had been prevented by traffic police from continuing their journey to get home. Hundreds of people spent up to 23 hours in their vehicles without food or water and with fuel – which kept their heating systems going – running out between 70 and 90 kilometers out of Athens. The last were able to start moving again about 6 p.m. on Saturday. Many had been there since early on Friday afternoon. Yesterday afternoon, police started letting drivers onto the highway in batches, turning the 212-kilometer-long Athens-Lamia stretch into a one-way road first in one direction, then in the other. Lorries were banned from the road (until after 7 p.m., when groups of 30 were let through at long intervals), as were all cars lacking snow chains. Three lorry drivers caught on the highway without chains were arrested. Although parts of it were covered in snow on Saturday, the Athens-to-Corinth highway functioned without major problems, as did all main roads throughout the country. The railway network also operated smoothly, with the exception of the minor Inoi-Halkida and Diakofto-Kalavryta lines that shut down for some hours on Saturday due to fallen trees on the tracks. Yesterday, Skandalidis appealed to Athenians planning to return to the capital after the holidays to wait until today, when, he said, the weather should be slightly better before improving considerably tomorrow. «This will be a great relief to all of us,» he told journalists. The Ministry of Education said schools in Attica, Boeotia and Evia – which were due to open tomorrow – will be closed until Thursday. Skandalidis was unable to clarify to what extent the public sector will be functioning today. Yesterday, many museums locked visitors out, saying not enough guards had turned up for work. And on Saturday the Acropolis was shut as ice had covered the ascent, which is slippery at the best of times. Apart from Attica and its surrounding areas, the rest of Greece generally weathered the storm, which mainly affected the central and eastern parts of the country. In an extremely rare occurrence, heavy snowfall on the Cycladic islands of Serifos and Andros caused half a dozen villages to be cut off. The same happened on Naxos, and in several parts of Crete. About 150 villages all over Greece were thus afflicted. On Saturday, Athenians woke to a covering of snow that ranged from 15 centimeters in the center to about half a meter in the northern suburbs. As the authorities focused on rendering central arteries such as Panepistimiou, Syngrou, Patission and Aharnon passable, most of the cars that braved the slushy roads – ignoring government appeals to limit private transportation to the absolutely essential – used snow chains. Some 70 percent of the blue bus fleet served most of the capital, while the trolley buses also ran, as did the electric railway from Piraeus to Neo Iraklion. In the southern Athens suburb of Vari, 78-year-old Evangelia Makri was found frozen to death outside a petrol garage early on Saturday. The pensioner, who had left home late on Friday, suffered from amnesia.

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