Unusually frigid weather struck Europe this week, prompting a Jewish aid agency to muster its resources to assist the beleaguered across Eastern Europe.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) reportedly supplemented its annual donation of “heating fuel, blankets, warm jackets, clothes and boots” with additional heating supplies and food for the hardest-hit areas of the Balkans and the Ukraine.
“For these Jews, many of whom have no one else to turn to, we are there to ensure an extra lifeline and much-needed sense of community at this time,” said JDC CEO Steven Schwager.
Bosnia used helicopters on Sunday to evacuate the sick and deliver food to thousands of people left stranded by its heaviest snowfall ever, while Pope Benedict XVI donned an overcoat to bless the few pilgrims who braved Rome’s unusually cold weather to visit St. Peter’s Square.
“The snow is beautiful, but let’s hope spring comes soon,” the pope told the pilgrims, looking out over remnants of Rome’s biggest snowstorm since 1986.
Across Eastern Europe, thousands of people continued to dig out from heavy snow that has fallen during a cold snap that struck more than a week ago and has killed hundreds of people.
In Ukraine, the hardest hit area, temperatures have fallen as low as minus 33 Fahrenheit (minus 36 Celsius). The government said Sunday the country’s death toll now stands at 131, including many homeless people. About 2,300 other Ukrainians have sought treatment for frostbite or hypothermia.
At the other end of Europe, Britain had its first snowfall of the winter on Saturday — up to 6.3 inches (16 centimeters) — forcing London’s Heathrow Airport — Europe’s busiest — to cancel flights and stranding many drivers overnight on highways. Stansted, Birmingham and Luton airports suspended operations overnight as snow piled up on runways, but resumed operations Sunday.
Still, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip managed to brave the cold and snow to attend a service at West Newton church on her Sandringham Estate in eastern England on Sunday.
The 85-year-old monarch marks 60 years on the throne on Monday, and her Diamond Jubilee anniversary will be marked by a series of regional, national and international events throughout 2012.
In Bosnia, more than 100 remote villages have been cut off by 6 1/2 feet (2 meters) of snow in the mountains. More than three feet (1 meter) fell in Sarajevo, the capital, where a state of emergency has been declared.
Three helicopters cruised over eastern Bosnia Sunday, delivering food and picking up people who needed evacuation.
Rescuers on the ground managed to get through to dozens of people who remained trapped in their cars on roads cut off by avalanches in eastern Bosnia. Near Kalinovik, they found several scared and freezing people hiding in their cars.
“There were 15, 20 cars trapped in snow for 20 hours. We barely managed to pull the people out and we are now flying them home with helicopters. It was hell,” said rescue worker Darko Rojic.
Sarajevo has been paralyzed since Friday evening and authorities have ordered all schools closed. Residents have volunteered to remove snow and ice from the trams that are stuck along the city’s tracks.
In neighboring Serbia, the government introduced emergency measures in the entire country Sunday to better help 70,000 people cut off by the snow. Interior Minister Ivica Dacic has said the move will pave the way for “better organization and coordination” of all emergency efforts.
In Montenegro, the north of the country remained cut off, although emergency crews have managed to clear some of the blocked roads.
The situation also had improved somewhat in Croatia, where bus traffic toward the coast resumed, even as snow slowed traffic throughout the country. In the coastal town of Split, where authorities declared emergency measures, dozens of people sought medical help for injuries sustained on ice and snow. Snow is extremely rare in Split, which is on the Adriatic coast.
Snow also has fallen on Spain’s Balearic islands in the Mediterranean.
In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI managed to keep his Sunday appointment at the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square, still covered with snow from the day before. Bundled up in a white overcoat, the pope blessed an unusually small crowd of pilgrims.
Meanwhile, Rome’s mayor is being criticized for the lack of snow plows and salters. But the city counters that it can’t spend millions of euros (dollars) on equipment that might not be used in decades.