Snowballing winter storms take Europe by surprise

The face of Europe, East and West, is looking much like a Christmas card as snow blankets the land.

But the sparkling whiteness has complicated the lives of millions. It is one of the harshest winters in many years.

Confusion was greatest in Britain, where deluges of snow and ice always seem to take the weatherman by surprise. Motorways in the south of England were blocked most of the weekend, and people living off secondary roads were cut off completely.

In Wales 200 motorists on a motorway were trapped by swiftly growing snowdrifts and had to be rescued by police. In Scotland, as temperatures dropped to -15 C., there were fears for hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle.

But the savage winter weather was not limited to Britain, or even to Western Europe where, in France and West Germany, airports closed and the threat of flooding from mountain streams choked by snow added to the general alarm.

For a time, the sudden cold snap prompted delight among snow-lovers. Skiers bound for the Swiss, Austrian, and Italian Alps gave whoops of joy as slopes were dumped with powder snow.

On Hampstead Heath in London, toboggans appeared and thousands of children began hurling themselves down hillsides.

But joy soon turned to concern as the force of the blizzards became apparent. On autobahns in West Germany police begangetting distress calls from stranded motorists. Blankets, food, and hot drinks were summoned, and the flow has continued in the last few days.

In Britain, 12 deaths were attributed to the storms. In some rural areas emergency workers could not predict when the emergency conditions would ease.

A member of the opposition Labour Party called on Margaret Thatcher to appoint a special minister to coordinate emergency relief, but his suggestion was discarded by the government as unnecessary.

Across the Irish Sea, in the Republic of Ireland, conditions were no better as police, Army, and other relief workers battled with the worst blizzards for 20 years. Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald cut short a holiday in the sunny Canary Islands to return to Dublin to take charge of the emergency operation.

In Poland, where life has been bleak enough since the Dec. 13 military takeover, snow was combined with flooding. In some places the Vistula River burst its banks, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate their homes.

The icy hand of the weather reached southeast into Asia Minor as well. Three people died from exposure in eastern Turkey, and two more were drowned in the Western part of the country.

There were patches of brightness in the gloom. On the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Britain, residents have been waking up to clear skies and have even been able to watch daffodils pushing their head through the soil.

In most places however the prospect is for the bitter spell to continue. Forecasters say they were outfoxed by the way the snow swept in and built up so quickly.

Britain is normally helped in its annual battle against the elements by a high pressure weather system. But this time the high pressures didn't materialize, and warm weather coming up from the Gulf Stream was halted in its tracks.

Among those whose January plans have been shattered by the weather are astronomers. A lunar eclipse might have been observable in most parts of Europe Jan. 9.

But driving snow and rain drew a curtain over the heavens and made telescopes useless.

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