Friday, December 10, 2010

Monika, You Bitch!

Estonia is in the middle of Cyclone Monica - a massive snowstorm. Mostly it's being handled, a lot of parked cars are going to stay where they are for a while, but the streets are at least passable. My lolcar is doing great - it's light, short, has decent road clearance, and hardcore studded tires. It might need a few passes to get out of a snowdrift after being parked for a day, but it hasn't come close to getting seriously stuck yet. Anyway, Tartu is not next to any large body of water, so we've had it relatively easy. The northern coast is getting the worst of it by far.

This sort of thing tends to happen once a year or so, and I think people are used to it. As usual, the most important thing is not to panic. The second most important thing is to stay off the intercity freeways, and definitely stay off the side roads. Main roads get cleaned, but it's still a hazard; side roads are sacrificed.

Tallinn Airport reports that its runway is clear, but they've diverted all
Polish cargo planes, just in case.

The biggest crisis is one particular stretch of the Tallinn-Narva(-St. Petersurg) road, where a couple of lorries on summer tires failed to climb out of a valley, leading to a massive traffic jam that got snowed in almost immediately. This being Estonia, people stuck there have Internet access, so reports and pictures have been coming in. The news daily Postimees is publishing information from the owner of a catering company, who got stuck in the middle of it with a van full of food. A number of intercity coaches are stuck as well, and those have full fuel tanks and on-board tea/coffee facilities. So people weren't in real danger - and it's not actually that cold, only a few degrees below freezing, though there's a wind chill.

(Update: As of publishing, Postimees reports that all the people have been rescued off the road. Some of them were housed in a local school gymnasium. The freeway is passable, albeit slowly.)

The road cleaners have been doing a heroic job all over the country, and from what I can tell, there's no real shortage of equipment, but drivers started getting too sleep-deprived after the first day or so. The army and the Kaitseliit (National Guard equivalent) got called in, with their tracked vehicles, to rescue people who were trapped in their cars out in the countryside. Besides that one highway block, the biggest difficulties were experienced by commuters who live outside Tallinn. Then again, it may be that these are just the people complaining the loudest: Postimees has published an article by a woman who, with her husband, had to spend a night in their car. While I'm sure it was very unpleasant for her, the exasperated calls for an explanation of why the army was not called in immediately to deal with the crisis are made very ironic by her own admission a paragraph below that she was rescued and delivered to her doorstep by an army caterpillar. I think it's worth pointing out that the Estonian army does not have a significant number of tracked vehicles anyway. The heavy trucks and armored personnel carriers can get through most of the snow just fine, but aren't equipped for road-clearing duty (can you even mount a plough on a Pasi?).

The other absolute heroes of the day are the rescue crews. This is literally a couple days after they picketed the government offices, demanding fair wages; those guys get paid scandalously little money. Not just for the difficulty and importance of the work they do, but by any standard. My furry flappy-eared hat off to them; they are unassailably awesome.

Overall, the astounding thing about the snowstorm is just how well the country is handling it. The number of traffic jams is not overwhelming; one person has died after walking out into the road when his Land Rover got stuck on the freeway and getting hit by a passing vehicle. Another two elderly people have died of hypothermia. That's tragic, but it could have been so much worse. Lots of people have been rescued. The cities are mostly operating as usual; there's less traffic on the roads and getting anywhere takes a lot longer, but the overwhelming majority of the population seem to be exercising caution and common sense with admirable results. Those who can help others, do. Those who can't, stay out of harm's way. It is a true testament to what is great about Estonia's peasant spirit. Worst snowstorm in memory? Don't worry about it. Move along, nothing to see here. We've got this covered.

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