Red Cross responds to Europe's extreme weather

Published: 3 December 2010 0:00 CET

Joe Lowry and Giovanni Zambello, Europe Zone

Red Cross societies across Europe are working flat out to combat the effects of the current severe weather. Floods, snow and temperatures as low as minus 33 have cost dozens of lives, wreaked havoc on transport and made many thousands of people vulnerable.

The worst of the weather has been in the Balkans, where floods have hit Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia. Red Cross teams are visiting the worst-affected places and the Federation’s Europe Zone office is helping national societies with their response.

Several rivers have burst their banks resulting in thousands of people being evacuated and many homes damaged or destroyed. In Albania floodwaters have reached a depth of two metres, stranding villagers in predominantly Roma areas and cutting power supplies. Albania Red Cross has delivered flour, hygiene kits and blankets to hundreds of people.

Montenegro Red Cross describes the situation as “extremely dramatic” and has emptied its disaster stocks. They urgently need canned food, rubber boots, hygiene parcels, warm clothes and jerry cans.

High tides on the Croatian coast have combined with melting snow to bring water levels to their highest in 50 years, and local Red Cross branches in Dubrovnik-Neretva county are providing relief items, drinking water and assisting with the evacuation. In Bosnia and Herzegovina hundreds of houses are flooded, many areas are reachable only by boat, and power supplies have been severely disrupted.

The river Drina looks like a lake in places, reaching its highest levels for 100 years. A local resident was quoted as saying “this area is famous for rafting but if this goes on big ships will be able to dock in Goradze.”

A state of emergency has been declared in parts of Serbia, where the Red Cross is providing ready-to-eat meals for evacuees. In all, thousands of people have been evacuated across the flood-affected countries.

Heavy snow has caused misery in other parts of Europe. Up to 30 people have reportedly frozen to death in Poland, where temperatures have plummeted. Polish Red Cross has been distributing aid to people worst affected by recent floods; the relief items have come at a critical time.

Germany has also been severely affected, with one death already reported and temperatures down to -12. On the highways the centre of the country German Red Cross sent out National Disaster Response teams to take care of people stuck in their vehicles, giving them blankets and hot drinks, as well as setting up shelters in railway stations.

In Berlin the Red Cross expanded its meal delivery service to provide hot food to 7,000 elderly people. This not only gave physical and moral support, it also meant pensioners did not have to risk accident by venturing out on icy streets.

In Ireland Red Cross ambulances and crews are working inside the national emergency plan in eleven counties. One team rescued a pregnant woman stranded in her car on a remote mountain pass. Home Care teams are visiting patients in isolated villages, and the Society is calling on the population to be extra careful.

“We urge people not to travel unless absolutely necessary and to call in regularly on elderly friends and neighbours to see if they need help in staying warm or with provisions”, said Chairman David O’Callaghan.

French Red Cross has extended its usual winter operations, upping the number of outreach teams from 50 to 135, extending opening hours of day centres, and opening overnight shelters for people in need. A total of 5,000 staff and volunteers will provide services to the homeless.

In the UK, British Red Cross volunteers have set off on foot to give first aid, and to act as ‘snowfriends’, visiting the homes of vulnerable people to offer extra help. Meanwhile volunteer crews with 4x4 Land Rover ambulances, have fought through heavy snows to provide life saving treatment, delivered essential medical equipment to those in need, and transported patients and vital personnel.

One ambulance worker in the British midlands summed up the Europe-wide Red Cross response well: "The Red Cross’ support has been a godsend in these conditions. Please pass on my sincere thanks to all the volunteers and staff for their fantastic support."