The Greek prime minister has apologised for the state’s lack of preparedness to deal with a snowstorm that left thousands of people stranded in their cars in Athens.
The unprecedented spectacle of elite forces being called in to evacuate motorists trapped in vehicles along the capital’s main ring road left the government reeling as the damage was still being calculated in the wake of Monday’s storm.
With blackouts reported citywide, Kyriakos Mitsotakis acknowledged the public’s 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,” he said in televised comments. “There were mistakes and shortcomings which have to be fixed.”
An estimated 4,000 drivers were left stranded in cars for hours in sub-zero temperatures as the storm pounded Athens. Those who were not evacuated by the army sought refuge in Athens international airport or struggled to walk to their homes through the snow.
On Wednesday, scores of cars abandoned by owners remained stuck on the ring road while power cuts in the wider Athens region affected thousands of households for a third day.
Mitsotakis, echoing ministers, lay the blame for much of the debacle with the private operator of the Attiki Odos motorway system, which has been criticised for allowing cars on to its road, but he admitted it was also time to boost climate crisis defences.
Like Turkey, also hit by the storm, Greece experienced devastating forest fires last year with the loss of hundreds of homes and livestock.
“It’s true that a Mediterranean country’s infrastructure is not always adapted to conditions of heavy snowfall,” said the leader. “It is equally true, however, that the state mechanism is not yet at the point of readiness that phenomena of such great intensity require.”
In a country of hyper-partisan media coverage where Mitsotakis’ centre-right government is rarely censured, the criticism has been impossible to ignore. Outlets have condemned the authorities’ slow response to the blizzard, calling the chaotic scenes in an EU member state inexcusable.
All non-essential services, including the entire public sector, were shut down, with the government declaring a public holiday on Tuesday and Wednesday. Schools are not expected to reopen until Friday after authorities announced that snow was still blocking access to many of the facilities.
This is the second consecutive year – and only the second time since 1968 – that Athens, more usually accustomed to the difficulties of extreme heat, has been pummelled by a snowstorm of such vigour. As much as 50cm of snow fell in 12 hours in some parts of the capital. Indicative of the storm’s intensity, tornadoes were reported off islands and coastal areas, with almost all of Athens, from the Acropolis in the ancient city centre to seaside suburbs in the south-east, being blanketed white.
Meteorologists were also unsparing on Wednesday in chastising the state’s response. 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.
“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.”