Europe Jolted by Extremes of Weather

Sarah Lyall – New York Times December 4, 2010

Northern Europe remained in the grip of arctic weather on Friday after a week of blinding snow, biting winds and plummeting temperatures. Airports have closed, trains have halted in midtrip, cars have been abandoned on highways and several dozen people from Poland to Britain have died of exposure so far, the authorities say.

In the southeast, heavy rainfall in the Balkan countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro caused the worst flooding along the Drina River in more than 100 years, deluging villages and causing more than 1,000 people to be evacuated from their homes.

But in the north, all the misery involved the cold and the snow. In Britain, flights at Gatwick Airport were resuming on Friday, after two days in which the airport was closed entirely, with more than 1,200 flights canceled, as frantic efforts failed to clear the snow as it fell. But even on Friday, after workers removed 150,000 tons of snow from the runways in 36 hours, there was only limited service to and from the airport, and hundreds of stranded passengers remained camped out in the terminals.

Many flights from airports across the rest of northern Europe — including Charles de Gaulle in Paris, Schiphol in Amsterdam, Tegel in Berlin, and the airports in Edinburgh and Vienna — were canceled or delayed.

Europe’s efficient train services were also stymied. About 3,000 train passengers were stranded overnight on Wednesday in Germany, while 200 passengers spent the night in trains in Frankfurt after hotels filled up. Many train lines were simply shut down. Sixteen Eurostar trains were canceled on Friday.

Nor were the roads much better. Traffic was snarled in many big cities as commuters, unable to use public transportation, struggled to get to and from work. Many gave up and went home. In Denmark, armored personnel carriers operated by the army cut their way through the snow so that ambulances and other emergency vehicles could respond to accidents. In Belgium, traffic jams were reportedly snarling some 403 miles of road.

Temperatures have been bitterly cold, much colder than usual for this time of year. Scotland recorded temperatures of minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature at the Leeming air force base in North Yorkshire, minus 1 degree Fahrenheit, was the lowest on record in the 55 years since record-keeping began.

In Poland, temperatures in the northeast fell to minus 27 degrees, and at least 150,000 people were said to be without power in Czestochowa, a city in the south. The authorities said at least 30 people died of exposure in Poland in the past three days, most of them homeless people or alcoholics who drank too much and passed out outside.

Other deaths included four in the Czech Republic, three in Germany and at least two in northern England.

Scotland canceled all its Premier League soccer matches and all its train services north of Glasgow and closed most of its schools. The Automobile Association said that it had answered 16,000 breakdown calls across Britain on Thursday, about double the usual amount.

The week followed a familiar trajectory in Britain, where many areas rarely get snowfall at any time during the year. First there was the bad weather; then there were the traffic shutdowns, then there were the recriminations. “Why Did We Slide Into Chaos?” The Daily Telegraph asked.

In Parliament, many lawmakers were stuck at home and failed to make it in for a discussion of the weather. But Maria Eagle, the transportation spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, accused Philip Hammond, the transportation secretary, of “demonstrating a breathtaking degree of complacency” about the poor travel conditions and told him to “get a grip.”

Speaking of a report on the chaos that ensued during last year’s snowstorms, Ms. Eagle said, “The winter resilience review commissioned by the previous government has produced its final report and recommendations, yet the country is in chaos with passengers forced to sleep at stations, stuck freezing all night in broken-down trains and trapped in their cars — all at a cost to the economy” of the equivalent of nearly $2 billion a day.

In response, Mr. Hammond accused Ms. Eagle of “failing to recognize the scale of the weather event.” In a remark that irritated some stranded drivers, he also said abandoned cars were preventing the government from properly clearing the roads.

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