TALLINN-RIGA-VILNIUS - Arctic winds and record-low temperatures de-scended on the three Baltic states last week, claiming dozens of lives and inflicting as yet uncounted property damage. The thermometer fell as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius in many rural areas, and in Lithuania hundreds of people were left without power after electricity lines gave out. Many schools and businesses shut down in all three countries, and meteorologists implored people to stay inside.
The cold streak began on Jan. 18, and the mercury only started to rise back up and approach minus 10 degrees on Jan. 24.
At least 25 people froze to death in Latvia, and nearly as many perished in Estonia and Lithuania - mostly the homeless and elderly.
Estonian paramedics had the unenviable job of retrieving at least eight frozen corpses over the week. The body of a middle-aged man who had frozen to death was found in a garage in the southern city of Tartu on Jan. 18. Two days later, an emergency team found the corpse of a man in a Tallinn warehouse. on Jan. 21, a woman was found dead in an abandoned house.
Estonian police said they had managed to save quite a few lives, taking people vulnerable to the harsh weather off the streets in Ida-Viru County, Tartu and Tallinn. Doctors worked hard to save the frozen hands and feet of a 51-year-old man hospitalized in drunken condition in Tartu on Jan 21.
In Lithuania, heating problems made the headlines. In Telsiai, in the northern part of the country, workers were forced to cut heat in 27 apartment buildings after radiators cracked. About two-thirds of the town's population were left in minus 30 degree weather without centralized heating as a result. The residents of two apartment buildings and a nursing home were evacuated.
By Jan. 22, heating was supplied to more than 50 percent of residents' households.
The incident in Telsiai represented the largest energy crisis as a result of the frost.
There was also no small amount of foolhardiness. Despite warnings to dress warm or stay inside, some 50 Orthodox believers headed to the Narva River to partake in a ritual sprinkling of water on Jan. 18. During the procession, two men undressed and began to pour ice-cold river water from buckets over themselves, police said. The older one collapsed after the procedure and died.
Marta Smith, senior specialist in development and information at Latvia's Meteorology Agency, said that the cold front came in from a high-pressure area in central Russia. In Moscow, temperatures fell as low minus 38 degrees, and the winter has been qualified as the coldest in the capital since 1978-79.
Still, Smith stressed that these temperatures are not especially shocking for the Baltics. "Negative 25 degrees is not that abnormal," she said. "If we look back, temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius are recorded once every two or three years in at least one town in Latvia. If we're talking nation-wide, these temperatures are seen every six or seven years."
The most serious effects will be seen in agriculture, Smith said.
"The biggest problem is that there's been little snowfall in Latvia this year, especially in Kurzeme," she explained. "Snowfall is crucial for agriculture, because the snow acts as a blanket. Without this natural blanket, minus 20 degree weather is too cold for crops to grow."
People across the Baltics took various measures to warm themselves up 's some bought larger quantities of strong alcoholic beverages, while others swept wool blankets and honey-jars off store shelves.
Large shopping malls noticed that sales of certain goods had boosted: Viktorija Jakubauskaite, a spokesperson for the retail chain operator VP Market, told the Baltic News Service that shoppers were sweeping wool bedclothes, heating appliances and items to help cars start in cold weather off the shelves.
Darius Ryliskis, a media representative of the retail chain Norfos Mazmena, added that stores had observed a significant boost in the sales of alcoholic beverages.
"There are no statistics available yet, but we can see that the consumption of strong liquors has gone up. Consumption of beer has dropped, some suppliers even refuse to deliver beer fearing it might freeze solid," he said.
In the meantime, sales of honey, lemons and tea increased in stores of the Iki chain.
In Latvia classrooms were half-empty for most of the week, the Riga City Council's education, youth and sports department reported.
Children are not required to attend school at temperatures 20 degrees below zero. In particular this refers to pupils in the countryside, who have to travel over considerable distances to get to school.
The lowest temperature recorded in Latvia was in the eastern town of Zoseni on Jan. 23, where it was negative 28 degrees. Rezekne, also in eastern Latvia, was minus 27 degrees, temperatures in Riga dropped to 22 degrees below zero.