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Ukraine: Deep Freeze Wreaks Havoc

  • Stefan Korshak

Kyiv, 19 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A lethal blast of frigid Arctic air from Scandinavia that invaded Ukraine this week has killed at least 38 people and sent 135 others to hospitals, emergency officials tell RFE/RL. The sudden cold snap also cut off power to hundreds of villages, closed schools in Kyiv's suburbs and stranded thousands of commuters whose cars refused to start.

Thermometers in eastern Ukraine plunged to 35 degrees below zero Celsius, while Kyiv posted a low of minus 20 Thursday. Officials said the death toll could climb even higher.

"No one can say how many more homeless or drunks froze as a result of the cold," said Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Anatoly Olesenko. "(Minus) Thirty degrees is enough to kill a weak person without a source of heat."

The deep freeze also cut off power to some 350 villages in the Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Mykolayiv and Crimea regions. More than 11,000 residents across the nation shivered in unheated apartments, because of spot shortages of coal.

Of the 1,000 apartment buildings in Donetsk, the administrative center of Ukraine's coal-producing Donbass basin, 139 were without heat Thursday, because fuel shortages and power cuts had idled 63 boiler rooms, said Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Tatyana Pomazanova.

Meteorologists blamed a high-pressure front stationed over Ukraine that sucked in Arctic air from Scandinavia. As with so many things in Ukraine, Moscow no longer shapes the local weather.

"Twenty years ago the winter weather in Ukraine depended on what was happening in Siberia, that's why people always looked at Moscow to find out what the weather would be like in Kyiv," said Anna Dudenko, Assistant Director of the Ukrainian Meteorological Center. "But weather patterns have shifted, and now we get our weather directly from the Arctic." The frigid weather arrived suddenly. Relatively balmy mid-month temperatures, hovering just below the freezing mark, dove to 25 degrees below zero Celsius in less than 36 hours December 15 - 16.

"What can you do? Wear more clothes, wear at hat," said hot dog vendor Vera Klimenko out from under a lime green hat and scarf. "But life doesn't stop just because it's 30 degrees on the street."

Kyiv's homeless people sought shelter in apartment building and metro station entrances. "During the day I stay here in the tunnel," said panhandler Igor Sivak at one metro entrance. "At night the grates by the entrances are still warmed, so I spend the night there. In such weather the police leave us alone."

Law enforcement officials said cold weather created special difficulties. "You have to understand that when the weather gets really cold like this people drink more to stay warm," said a uniformed police sergeant at the Kyiv train station (who declined to give his name). "That means that there is more theft and robbery, and we have more work to do."

Outdoor professionals confirmed that increased vodka intake remains for many the preferred cold weather remedy. "It's common for men working at night to take 50 grams before going up on the building," said construction crane operator Vitaly Teplyakov. "Of course, since I operate equipment I can't drink, but a guy who is laying bricks in 30 degrees below zero is in a totally different situation."

"Russian vodka - Russian antifreeze!" exclaimed one of Teplyakov's coworkers at the construction site, where work continues around the clock.

Automobiles refused to exhibit a similar work ethic, leaving thousands of commuters stranded. With most vehicles frozen in garages, main Kyiv thoroughfares - usually jammed at rush hour - remained strikingly free of traffic. In contrast, subway trains and buses were packed.