Winds, floods cause major damage across three countries

  • 2005-01-12
  • By TBT staff
RIGA - The severest storm to hit the Baltic coast in nearly half a century swept all three countries on Jan. 9, causing emergency evacuations, flooding, power failure and widespread destruction.

Winds reached up to 40 meters per second in Latvia, leaving 60 percent of the country without electricity - enough for officials to declare a national energy crisis. Thousands of Lithuanian residents were left in the dark as well, with regional heat and water supply damage in several regions. Estonian Prime Minister Juhan Parts met with members of the Parnu management crisis commission on Jan. 10 in order to asses damage to the resort town, which was by far hit the worst.

The economic consequences are startling. Total damages wreaked by the record-breaking storm, dubbed hurricane Ervinas, are estimated to reach tens of millions of euros. The Tallinn city government said it intended to allocate 1 million kroons (64,000 euros) in aid to Parnu, Kuressaare and Haapsalu, the towns hurt most by flooding and hurricane-level winds, while Parts on Jan. 11 suggested total aid to affected areas across the country would reach 10 million kroons.

Parnu administration officials said that the county's total damage could surpass 100 million kroons.

Latvian Finance Minister Oskars Spurdzins has not yet pinned an official number on damages, though he said that the government has allocated 2 million lats (2.8 million euros) to the Interior, Defense and Health ministries in response to the disaster.

Although nobody was killed directly, a three-year-old boy died in a fire in the Tukums region of western Latvia after the candles his grandmother had lit to illuminate the house once the power went out set the room on fire.

Evacuations took place across the Baltics. Rescue teams helped 20 people from their homes in Riga, including the regions of Bolderaja, Mangalsala and the Juglas canal. Latvian National Fire and Rescue Service chief Aivars Straume said that although he could not provide exact information on all rescue operations performed by the service over the weekend, he did say it had received over 7,000 calls for help.

"I would like to think that we have overcome the great crisis. Rescue work has generally been completed, and peace set in after 1 a.m. [on Jan. 10] when we were no longer flooded with calls," Straume said.

In Estonia, flooding proved to be the biggest problem. Parnu and Haapsalu, along with a number of less-populated islands, suffered from high water levels. In Parnu the water rose almost three meters above the topographical zero point, breaking the flood record set in 1967 by half a meter. About 400 people were evacuated from their dwellings after flooding, the crisis commission reported. Of these 180 were tourists. Fourteen people needed medical attention.

In Latvia, all of Ventspils and part of Liepaja remained without heating and hot water for two days, and both cities' ports - as well as Riga's - were closed due to high water levels.

Power shortages were also widespread. By the morning of Jan. 10, Latvenergo had restored power to 24 cities, although a number of towns and villages, company representative Andris Siksnis said. But Prime Minister Aivars Kalvitis said that by declaring a national energy crisis the state could better solve power-supply problems, as the move would fund a specific action plan and mobilize municipal governments.

Power outages hit Lithuania the hardest. About 40,000 households remained without electricity a day after the storm, 29,000 of which were left in the dark until nightfall. In all, the number of households stripped of power reached 250,000. Preliminary calculations suggest that financial damage in Lithuania could amount to 250,000 litas (72,000 euros), while insurance companies' preliminary calculations suggest that at least 2 million litas will have to be spent on compensation.

Lithuanian fireman received more than a hundred storm-related calls on Dec. 9, most relatively minor complaints about trees blocking roads. The storm roared strongest in the western part of the country, with winds reaching 28 - 30 meters per second. The last storm of comparable scale was in 1999, when gale winds ravaged the Baltic coast, particularly the Curonian Spit, though this one caused more damage.

Still, compared with Latvia and Estonia, the amount of destruction in Lithuania appeared to be milder.

After surveying the damage in Parnu on Jan. 10, Prime Minister Parts thanked emergency services and volunteers for their rescue operations. "The government agreed that two things should be the priorities now: first, [to help] households whose living conditions and financial situations have been jeopardized due to the storm. Second, to fix the area's strategic infrastructure," he said.

"Businesses should be able to cope with risks themselves, and Eesti Energia is also capable of dealing with consequences of the storm. People should be mostly capable of renovating their dwellings with the help of insurance companies. Having said that, we believe that 10 million kroons will be enough at this initial stage," the prime minister added.

Parts referred to the storm as "an extraordinary event that happens perhaps once in a generation" and said that it was a somewhat historical moment for Estonia. On a positive note, he added that the storm could serve as useful experience for construction practice, particularly along the coast.

"I was in Parnu, and I believe what is needed now is the restoration of specific places. There are people who can manage by themselves, who have already pumped their houses of water, and at the same time there are, for example, senior citizens who clearly need support," he said Parts.

He said that the Finance Ministry is considering going to the European Commission for financial help.

In Latvia, the energy crisis management center, headed by Economics Minister Krisjanis Karins, on Jan. 11 asked that the government withhold from lifting the crisis situation for at least another week due to possibilities of a second storm.

Ferry operator Rigas Julas Linijas was forced to delay the departure of two ferries running between the Latvian and Swedish capitals due to strong winds and heavy seas on the 9th. All in all, some 300 passengers' had booked passages on these two lines. A company spokeswoman said that these delays would probably affect schedule times over the next few days.

The hurricane was also detrimental to farming, as a generator blew that provides power to several farms in the Saldi region, including one Latvia's largest herding farms with 900 cows, according to the national daily Diena. "We lost electricity shortly before midnight on Saturday, that's why for almost 24 hours we weren't able to milk our 200 cows," a farmer from the Jelgava region told Diena.

The storm impacted not only the Baltics but countries across the north European region. The most damage was done to Sweden, where at least seven people died. Winds of up to 108 kilometers per hour hit the southern part of the country, causing 400,000 to go without power and two nuclear power stations to shut down.

In Denmark, officials reported two dead after the storm, and in Russia's Pskov region the government announced a state of emergency due to severe power supply damage.