Thousands stranded in Istanbul as snowstorm causes havoc en route to Israel

Turkish capital’s airport closed while emergency crews using snowplows struggle to reach motorists trapped on highways

Pedestrians walk during a snowfall in Istanbul, Turkey, on Jan. 24, 2022. (Emrah Gurel/AP)
Pedestrians walk during a snowfall in Istanbul, Turkey, on Jan. 24, 2022. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

Rescue crews on Tuesday were forging ahead with efforts to clear major throughways in and around Istanbul that were clogged by a massive snowstorm that hit the megacity and left countless people and vehicles stranded overnight in below-freezing conditions.

The severe weather system, dubbed Elpis, is expected to hit Israel by Wednesday after the country already saw snow descend in northern and mountainous regions last week, while rain soaked lower-lying areas.

Snow is forecast to begin falling in the north, then spread south during the day, settling in areas of high elevation. The capital Jerusalem has been forecast to receive up to 20 centimeters of snow.

Along with a sharp drop in temperatures, strong winds have also been forecast to buffet the country.

In Turkey, highways and roads in the city came to a standstill on Monday after the storm pounded Istanbul — a city of some 16 million people that straddles the European and Asian continents — accumulating more than 80 centimeters (31 inches) of snow in some areas.

Stranded motorists either spent the night in cars, abandoned their vehicles to walk home, or crowded metros and other public transportation. A lucky few were rescued and taken to hotels.

The city’s Disaster Coordination Center, or AKOM, said an Icelandic low-pressure system is behind the cold front and precipitation affecting most of the country. The storm also caused havoc in neighboring Greece, snarling traffic in Athens and putting most public transport out of action.

Flurries are forecast to continue through Wednesday. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said more heavy snowfall was likely Tuesday evening.

AKOM teams and other units worked overnight to clear snowy roads and highways but abandoned vehicles hampered their operations. Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya urged motorists to return to their vehicles and move them.

A flight suspension in and out of Istanbul Airport on Monday was extended until 1 p.m. Tuesday (1000 GMT) over safety concerns, while the governor’s office banned the use of private cars until the same time. Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, was operating limited services.

People throw snowballs each other on the snow-covered park in Istanbul, Turkey, Jan. 24, 2022. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

“Nothing is moving. The snowplows can’t even reach us,” Ahmet Odabasi, 40, one of the thousands of travelers stranded overnight on a highway west of Istanbul told The Associated Press by telephone.

“I have been stuck here for 12 hours now. I am lucky that I have gas, food and water,” said the motorist, who was driving to Istanbul from the city of Edirne, near the border with Greece.

AKOM manager Selcuk Tutuncu told the AP that 40,000 tons of salt have been used since the beginning of the storm.

“Right now there are over 1,500 vehicles and over 7,000 personnel working out in the field nonstop,” Tutuncu said.

On Monday, authorities in Istanbul suspended intercity bus services and blocked travel to the city from Turkey’s northwestern Thrace region.

The Istanbul governor’s office announced that civil servants would be allowed to stay at home Tuesday, except for those employed in security, health and transportation. Schools across Turkey were already closed for a winter break.

Imamoglu said the municipality has provided shelter to around 1,500 homeless people. Another 1,500 people stranded at a bus terminal due to the suspension of intercity services were taken to hotels or hostels.

Teams have left some two tons of food for stray cats and dogs, Imamoglu said.

A video shared last week on social media showed five donkeys apparently frozen to the spot in the village of Jikarak, near the city of Sanlıurfa, local media reported.

In a short clip, the snow-covered donkeys were shown unmoving in the blizzard, but then locals took them to an animal rescue shelter where they were given food and warmed up, according to TRT Arabi, the Arabic-language channel of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation.

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