Thousands stranded for a second night in freezing weather

Published: 16 March 2013 17:12 CET

By  Lasse Norgaard, IFRC in Hungary

Thousands of motorists including tourists and truck drivers spent their second night cuddling up in shelters across western Hungary as the chaos caused by the heavy snowfall and gusty wind blocked major highways, cut off power supplies and isolated scores of villages.

Many of them had spent the first night between Thursday and Friday in their own vehicles caught by the severity of the blizzard blocking the major motorway M1 between Budapest and Vienna, as well as hundreds of other roads and railway lines. Almost 6,000 vehicles got stuck in kilometre long queues as snowdrifts of up to three metres made the roads impassable.

Among the stranded were the Kovacs family (pictured) who were on their way from Budapest to Salzburg late Thursday afternoon to enjoy the extended weekend, as Friday was a public holiday in Hungary.

“Slowly everything stopped and we just could not go anywhere,” says Anna Kovacs.  She, her husband and two daughters spent the next 22 hours in their car, before they were evacuated by a Red Cross bus and taken to a shelter in Tatabanya, 70 kilometres from where their car is stuck.

The daughters are making new friends playing badminton and the parents seem to take their missed holiday fate in stride, camped on four mattresses in the middle of an indoor sports arena. All spaces along the walls are already occupied by more than 350 people housed here.

The atmosphere is quite relaxed even as more people, evacuated from the highway, arrive and are offered mattresses, blankets, hot coffee and some food by the Red Cross and the Civil Protection department of the authorities. Nurse George also seems calm and collected as he directs all the newcomers to the floor of the arena, although he does express some concerns about having only two toilets for the many people here.

As soon as it was clear what was happening, more than 200 staff and volunteers from Hungarian Red Cross were mobilized to the scene late Thursday night, and began providing food, blankets and evacuating those stranded. Six shelters were opened within hours, housing more than a thousand people, and prepositioned food and other relief items were distributed all through the night and Friday.

Austrian Red Cross offered their assistance and within hours on Friday morning a convoy with 51 ambulances and other cars carrying medicine, food, a mobile kitchen and staff to provide psychosocial support crossed the border into Hungary to provide help. More than 800 people were assisted with blankets, tea and meals. The Red Cross also assisted in 18 medical cases, some of them in coordination with the public rescue service of Hungary.

Help was not only provided along the M1 throughout Thursday and Friday, but in other parts of Hungary as well, even close to the capital Budapest where motorists coming from the east and south were prevented from entering the highways leading west.  Foreigners with no relatives in Budapest were housed in a school and the Hungarian Red Cross provided meals and drinks in a nearby shopping centre, which was closed due to the public holiday.

As the sun rose on Saturday, the clearing of the motorway got underway. However, 13,000 people in 57 villages are still cut off from the outside world and thousands are without electricity with freezing temperatures, as the winter cold had suddenly and unexpectedly returned after three weeks of what seemed like spring.

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