Floods add to Europe's cold to claim more lives
by Diana Simeonova
SOFIA, February 6, 2012 (AFP) - The toll from Europe's winter weather edged past 360 Monday when snow- and rain-swollen rivers burst a Bulgarian dam and killed at least eight, while more homeless people perished on frigid city streets.
Four elderly people drowned in their homes in the southeastern Bulgarian village of Biser after a nearby dam wall broke, submerging the whole village under 2.5 metres (eight feet) of icy water, the interior ministry said.
Another four people died when their cars were swept from bridges into raging rivers in the same region.
"People are in panic," regional mayor Mihail Liskov said on national radio as a massive rescue effort was under way. "Ninety percent of the village is under water."
Two other dams were brimming with water and heavy rains triggered a landslide that derailed a train near the Turkish border. No injuries were reported.
Meanwhile, temperatures in Poland plunged to as low as minus 24 degrees Celsius (minus 11 Fahrenheit), bringing another deadly night for the homeless.
As has been the case throughout the 10-day-old cold snap, transients have borne the brunt of the suffering, with frozen victims found in abandoned and unheated homes, fire escapes or makeshift shelters on Europe's streets.
In a bid to save lives, Poland's homeless shelters have dropped a ban on drunken individuals.
Monika Golebiewska, a Warsaw police officer whose beat is a daily patrol bringing food and clothing to the homeless in the city's hardscrabble Praga district, said she had been unrelentingly busy.
"New (fatal) cases are reported to us daily. Just today we got calls telling us about two new ones, one of someone who was living in a tent and another of someone in an abandoned train station," Golebiewska said. "I've got more and more people to feed, but just 40 portions of soup a day."
Overall, 107 people have died of hypothermia in Poland since winter hit in November. The current cold snap began at the end of January and across the continent, authorities have reported at least 364 weather-related deaths.
Elzbieta Sztabler, an official with the Caritas Poland aid group, said stocks of meals provided by the European Union's food programme were running low.
"We've been serving more meals than normal. We've run out of 2011's stocks and are keenly awaiting the aid for 2012, though this isn't coming until March," Sztabler said.
In neighbouring Lithuania, where the mercury has dipped to minus 31 Celsius (minus 24 Fahrenheit), the deaths of 12 more people over the weekend brought the cold snap's toll to 23.
Italian authorities continued clearing up after a rare snow storm blanketed Rome over the weekend and crews struggled to restore power to about 60,000 homes across the country, especially in the Tuscan cities of Siena and Arezzo.
Energy giant ENI began reducing gas supplies to industrial clients and switching from gas-fired to oil-fired power stations following a plunge in gas imports from Russia.
Italian energy giant ENI warned it may cut power supplies to corporate customers after shortfalls in gas imports from Russia, though EU officials said gas supplies were beginning to return to normal.
In Bosnia, residents of dozens of hamlets were trapped by continued heavy snowfall, mostly in the eastern region around Srebrenica and Sokolac.
"The snow has reached over 1.5 metres (4.9 feet), it is still snowing and we have already been blocked for over a month," said Dzevad Muminovic, who lives in the tiny village of Krusev Do.
He added food was running out and about 40 people were trapped, including a baby and several elderly residents.
Elsewhere across Europe, authorities struggled to clear clogged roads and runways that left tens of thousands of travellers stranded over the weekend.
After cancelling half its flights Sunday, operators of London's Heathrow Airport, the world's busiest passenger hub, said its schedule was almost back to normal.
While parts of Britain were beginning to warm above freezing, other European nations remained in an icy grip, with the Czech town of Kvilda, recording a winter low of minus 39.4 Celsius (minus 38.92 Fahrenheit).
Switzerland also recorded year lows, dropping to minus 35.1 Celsius (minus 31 Fahrenheit) in the eastern Graubuenden canton on Sunday night.
The bitter cold has engulfed most of Europe and even crossed the Mediterranean into north Africa, where as many as 16 people were killed on Algeria's snow-slicked roads or in other weather-related accidents.
Rare snow also fell in southern Tunisia for the first time in some 40 years, media reported, with temperatures well below freezing in some areas and villages cut off.
In France, 39 of the country's 101 regions were on alert for deep cold as a new record for electricity consumption was predicted later Monday.
People in the Netherlands, however, were sharpening their skates in the hope that a legendary long-distance race on frozen canals may be held for the first time in 15 years, though organisers cautioned the ice was still too thin.
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