Greece Is Not Just a Beach – Nor a Failed State

Αssociated press

Workers repair a damaged electricity pole in front of a burnt building in Mati, east of Athens, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, ten days after the wildfire. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Let’s avoid politics for a bit.Before the tragic fires in northern Attica of last week I had planned to do an update of an earlier article on the wonders of Greece and scold the vast majority of tourists who ignored those wonders and just went to the beach.Nothing has changed, this is a country of magnificent mountains and seascapes, three millennia of history, some of the best food in the world, great music, people who know how to extract a good time from the hardest conditions and, yes, a seemingly uncountable number of great beaches, large and small, pebbly or sandy, shallow or deep.

That article appeared before the crisis of 2010 that struck Greece a cruel blow. Greek recovery from a disaster worse than America’ Great Depression will be long, painful, and perhaps even unattainable under the conditions imposed by its creditors. The crisis has fixed a few flaws. Greek mothers no longer force their children to seek public sector jobs. Greek youth has (slowly) rediscovered lucrative employment in its most important industry, the merchant marine.And – wonder of all wonders – Athens taxi drivers display a level of courtesy and helpfulness that make hardened visitors to Greece wonder if they got off at the wrong airport.To add icing to the cake, Greek techies and entrepreneurs have developed an app, Taxi Beat, that beats Uber at its own game and preserves the jobs of taxi drivers!Greece and its people face a long hard road to recovery but they are trying and deserve the support of the Diaspora.

And now the Diaspora social media attacks on Greece over the fires in Attica threaten to undermine much of the country’s slowly recovering reputation. There is no need for Greek-Americans to pile on.

As for the facts, the fire caused a tragic loss of life but not for lack of effort by Greek firefighters police and military.Military friends with good background knowledge tell me the weather created a perfect storm of high winds and unpredictable directions. No force could contain or channel it. High winds, up to 120kms an hour (i.e., 6,000 feet A minute – yes, a minute!) carried burningembers for kilometers starting new fires where least expected. Warnings backfired. People in Athens drove toward – yes, toward – the fires to “save” their homes!Others drove the wrong way because the fires kept changing direction. Panicked people drove down narrow roads with their cars. If one car stalled, it blocked the road.Ships rescued about 750 in the water but reported finding bodies of people in the water who suffocated because the fire sucked up oxygen if they could not swim far enough away.

Discussions of arson conspiracies have no place here. Suffice it to say that if an expert arsonist with meteorological knowledge had wanted to ignite the most disastrous fires, he could not have picked better spots and times. The first large fire started in Kineta SW of Athens. Fire services responded. A second fire then broke out 20 kilometers away on the east slope of Mt. Pendelis NE of Athens 45 minutes later, forcing the fire services to fight their way back through roads blocked by stalled cars.High winds disrupted the firefighting planes. High waves prevented firefighting seaplanes from scooping up water at sea. Heavy smoke shut down Athens International Airport forcing firefighting planes to more distant less well equipped airports. Firefighting helicopters were unable to fly over disturbances caused by thermals and smoke obscured targets for water drops.Greek Army Special Forces Chinook helicopters braved high winds and thick smoke to drop both commandos and 28 rubber boats. Helicopters had difficulty staying airborne over the burning area.Ships moved as quick as they could and saved 750 people in the water.Ground troops could not get in because people fleeing the fire blocked the roads with abandoned cars.

The problem began 30 years ago when people started building homes in fire-prone forests in mountainous regions. California has exactly the same problem.The current Shasta County California fire, fed by similar high winds and temperatures, has already claimed five lives and destroyed 500 homes with thousands more evacuated. Unlike Greece, the California press reports large-scale looting of abandoned homes.

Preventing disaster from forest fires requires: (1) widening roads, (2) clearing underbrush, whichacts like tinder and makesfires burn hotter, before the fire season and (3) banning or raising the cost of building in fire-prone areas. In the long run you must either remove the houses or remove the forests.

On dealing with its most common natural disaster, earthquakes, Greece has a sterling record enforcing building codes at least as well as any in the world including California and Japan. In1948Lefkada suffered 90% loss of buildings in a 6.5 Richter earthquake.In 2003 a 6.5 Richter scale earthquake destroyed one (1) building and damaged five others, the equivalent of 0.01 percent of all structures on the island.Its neighbors in Italy and Turkey are nowhere near as effective.The United States does not deal very well with hurricanes, its most common and deadliest natural disasters. Americans constantly build in riverine and coastal flood plains, get flooded and rebuild over and over again at taxpayer expense camouflaged as flood insurance.The Corps of Engineers botched flood preparations in New Orleans and FEMA bungled in the same city as well as in Puerto Rico and Houston causing thousands of dead and homeless. Given relative size and resources Greece compares favorably

But let’s first remember the tragedy.A taxi driver told us that he took a married couple towards Nea Makri. They had lost contact with their two children, 11 and 13, who had been left with their grandparents. He got them as far as a police roadblock two kilometers from Nea Makri.The distressed parents got out of the taxi and continued on foot, disappearing into the smoke. The driver does not know what happened to them.