ATHENS – A snowstorm predicted days in advance that still caught Greece’s response mechanism off guard and saw thousands of vehicles and drivers stuck on a major highway left Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis trying to explain it.
Mitsotakis was nowhere to be seen as the snow hit and for the next couple of days, leading for the major opposition SYRIZA to mock his New Democracy government and issue a Silver Alert that’ used when people go missing.
The Leftists – whose government was blamed for a chaotic response to July, 2018 wildfires that killed 102 people and saw some of its officials prosecuted – said Mitsotakis and his administration should be censured.
“The snowstorm buried the last illusions that Mr. Mitsotakis has the ability to learn from his mistakes and delays and the dramatic results of his ideologies,” SYRIZA leader and former premier Alexis Tsipras said in Parliament.
He submitted a censure motion he said was directed “against the worst government the country has known since the fall of the dictatorship. There are no dead ends in a democracy.”
With the government ruling the Parliament there was no chance a censure would pass but the the motion is typically used to try to ridicule or place blame.
Tsipras said the government failed in every emergency of the past few years, such as the wildfires that devastated parts of Attica and Evia last summer, the pandemic and the snowstorms – both this week’s and in 2021, said Kathimerini.
That came after Mitsotakis again tried to defend what he acknowledged were shortcoming in his government dealing with major disasters and why the state wasn’t read for a storm everyone knew was coming.
With blackouts reported across Athens and snow covered streets uncleared – icy conditions saw an elderly man on his way to a pharmacy slip on a sidewalk and die – Mitsotakis acknowledged the anger.
“I would like to start with a personal and sincere apology to our fellow citizens who suffered for many hours trapped on Attiki Odos,” referring to the privately-operated ring round around the capital. “There were mistakes and shortcomings which have to be fixed,” he said.
“It’s true that a Mediterranean country’s infrastructure is not always adapted to conditions of heavy snowfall,”he said. “It is equally true, however, that the state mechanism is not yet at the point of readiness that phenomena of such great intensity require,” he added, said the British newspaper The Guardian.
Kostas Lagouvardos, who heads the National Observatory of Athens, said the storm had been accurately predicted well in advance and that officials had ignored the forecasts, the paper added.
“There is no excuse,” he said. “Unlike 20 years ago we have the tools and methods to accurately forecast such events and this was very well forecast. Once again we have seen the state being reluctant to listen to the scientists and that is dangerous when we are talking about the safety of people and their property,” he said.
Motorists stuck for 10-20 hours or overnight on the Attiki Odos road will be paid 2,000 euros ($2232 ) by the management after Mitsotakis pressed them over a failure to respond to them.
CRITICS CRY SNOWJOB
Kathimerini said the company agreed after getting a call from Mitsotakis about why so many people were caught on the major toll road with no reports whether plows had been activated and videos showed snow piled up without being removed and vehicles were allowed on the road as the storm worsened.
More than 3,500 people had been evacuated, some abandoning their cars on foot, but around 1,200 cars remained stuck, government spokesperson Giannis Oikonomou said as many drivers abandoned their cars and walked out.
The government sent soldiers to hand out food, water and blankets to drivers shivering in freezing temperatures, some there for more than 10 hours, with TV footage showing the unfolding icy drama.
It was the beginning of a long night for many who spent it huddled in their vehicles in freezing weather, unable to move as the snow piled up and plows couldn’t get around stuck trucks and cars.
“Please, please, please,” Christos cried to a television presenter. “Please, show us some mercy. Tell them to open the road … to help us. We are freezing…. We have been left without any gasoline, nothing to tide us over,” Christos pleaded, said The Voice of America, his last name not given.
Christos Stylianides, Greece’s Climate Crisis and Civil Protection minister, apologized, but he said it was not the time to enter into a blame game because of what he called a major crisis – although the weather was predicted.
Stylianides, brought in from Cyprus to run the agency, said he was sorry for the railed response and for “troubling” thousands of people by extending a shutdown of schools, public services and banks for an extra day in three regions in Greece, including the capital, said VOA.
That wasn’t enough to quell anger, and a public prosecutor said there would be an investigation about the debacle on Attiki Odos, which was featured on BBC and major media.
Tsipras – who has been sniping at Mitsotakis for months, blaming him for the worsening COVID-19 pandemic – said the premier should quit over the snow storm response and that the country would be better off “without him.”
The Head of the Athens Prosecutor’s Office Sotiria Papageorgakopoulou has ordered an investigation into the failures of the Attiki Odos ring road to maintain normal traffic conditions and to establish whether any charges could be brought, said Kathimerini.
He said the management of Attiki Odos failed to maintain normal traffic conditions despite earlier promises that it was ready for the snow, although the government reportedly insisted that trucks not be barred from the road to keep supplies coming.
The debacle was another hit for the government after wildfires swept across the country, which led to the major opposition SYRIZA blaming him for mishandling the response then too.
“I think responsibility must be established. That will be my suggestion to the Prime Minister,” said Stylianides, who apologized to stranded motorists and as company officials blamed motorists and vehicles immobilized because the roads weren’t cleared.
“In the Attiki Odos Ring Road, that measures 70 kilometers (43.5 miles,) there are over 35 snow plows or approximately one for every two kilometers (1.24 miles) and an ample supply of salt,” the company said, without explaining why they weren’t able to keep roads clear of moderate snow fall.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)