Baltic blizzards strand motorists

  • 2002-01-10
  • Jorgen Johansson and Tassos Coulaloglou
RIGA, VILNIUS - Blizzards swept through Lithuania and Latvia last week causing havoc for all, particularly on the roads.

Air and sea traffic were not affected and there were only slight delays to rail services, but highways and rural roads became virtually impassable. City streets in Vilnius and Riga were quickly cleared, but rural roads continue to strand passengers.

Weather forecasters in Lithuania warned the public to stay home unless absolutely necessary on Jan. 2 and 3, and the military was put on alert in case emergency assistance was needed.

Routes were cleared around the clock at full capacity, on both roads and train lines.

The accumulation of snow was so intense in Vilnius that the roof of a skating rink under construction collapsed because of its weight. There were no injuries.

Taxis were all but helpless in taking people to work on Jan. 2, and crowded public transport was at a standstill. Many wisely chose to stay home.

While conditions improved slightly on Jan. 3, there were still major roads in outlying areas in need of attention and severe traffic jams in the cities. Parked and abandoned cars looked helpless on the roadside, buried under mountains of snow.

But by the time the storm passed later that day, the majority of country roads were passable, the national road administration reported.

However, up to 10 percent of low-traffic country roads remain covered.

The State Hydrometeorology Department announced that the snow cover in Riga rose from 28 to 35 centimeters over the night of Jan. 2-3, and that this was the most snow Latvia has seen in the last few years.

In this era of global climate change, the conditions are bringing back memories of bad winters. In an interview on state radio Jan. 3, Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins said the weather should not be perceived as some enormous catastrophe.

"Winter is winter," he said, and recalled his childhood when each and every year brought at least as much snow as this one.

He reassured that it was impossible to get all streets cleared immediately after a blizzard.

"To ensure that minor rural roads are also cleared is the task of the head of every respective municipality," emphasized Berzins, noting that, for instance, Kandava County Council Chairman Dainis Rozenfelds confirmed to him that everything was in order and that all rural routes were passable.

The use of money for the maintenance of roads in winter depends on sound planning, Berzins said. Statistics say that two severe winters occur in every seven years, but it is impossible to know which two they will be.

"Municipalities and governmental institutions just have to try and guess," he said as he explained current road maintenance expenditure during winter months.

Riga has had 36 deaths from hypothermia so far this winter. Most victims, homeless and without identification documents, were found in rundown locations where they'd sought shelter in vain.

Estonia has so far been spared heavy blizzards this winter - unlike last year. A large number of car accidents plagued the evening of Dec. 20, 2000, as heavy snowfall decreased visibility on the Estonian roads, with 21 accidents in Tallinn alone.