Lack of coordination plagued response to weather crisis

Attica’s regional services swung into action yesterday to avert the flooding that follows a snowmelt of such major proportions, as any sudden change in the weather, bringing further precipitation, will bring with it the risk of new destruction. As of today, snow is being carted to water courses to prevent the flooding of inhabited areas. However, the emergency clearly showed that coordination was the Achilles heel of both central authorities and local government agencies. Although it was perhaps one of the few occasions that the State’s entire available work force and equipment were out on the streets dealing with the emergency, the massive effort by hundreds of people working on the streets around the clock was undermined by two factors. The first was the fault of the State itself, whose various ministries did not decide on immediate measures, such as a ban on heavy vehicles on the main highways, or bringing in the army. When decisions were eventually made, the subsequent action was not monitored. The second factor had to do with people who refused to comply with official recommendations and attempted to travel without snow chains on their cars, creating serious problems. Prime Minister Costas Simitis has now decided to make snow chains compulsory in all vehicles. The prime minister said Monday after a lengthy Cabinet meeting that the system «could have worked better.» It was one of the few times that the prime minister attributed blame to specific individuals, despite the fact that on Monday Attica was functioning again, although snow was still heavy on the ground in many areas. Referring to the role of the civil defense organization, Simitis did not mince his words: «This organization has to plan more effectively, to coordinate still more effectively. There has to be central planning by all authorities, with regional decentralization. In addition, prevention measures have to be improved, along with expert planning for these situations, with immediate action on the highways.» Long delays Interior Ministry officials were even more specific in statements Monday. They said that, in effect, the Civil Defense General Secretariat’s coordinating role was nullified, since many of its decisions were not implemented in time. A typical example was a decision to bring in the army. Although the decision was made on Friday afternoon, the army was only mobilized late on Saturday afternoon. Another serious problem was the delayed intervention by the Interministerial Coordinating Body (SDO), which only convened on Sunday, supposedly because many decisions were left to be implemented by administrative staff and not by the ministries’ political leaders. Government sources said that «neither the Civil Defense General Secretariat nor the interior minister could get the brigadier out of the army camp» and that «the chief of police took effective action on the streets after he received direct orders from the Public Order Ministry’s political leadership.» The Interior Ministry is making an effort to remove these obstacles to the effective functioning of the State, in accordance with the prime minister’s instructions to give more power to the Civil Defense General Secretariat. In practice, this means the operation of a permanent coordinating body with experienced, hardworking staff, and having the SDO in continuous session during times of crisis. Exceptions to the rule Local authorities responded quickly to the crisis, with the exception of the Municipality of Athens which some have described as an «onlooker,» as it sent out only two graders. In 90 of Greater Athens’ 130 municipalities which were affected by snowfall, 500 vehicles were used and 2,000 tons of salt deposited on the streets. The prefecture of Athens was particularly zealous, renting 25 graders to clear the city streets.

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