Europe early winter storm claims 10 lives

Dec 06, 2013 12:00 AM

Icy winter storms with hurricane-force winds lashed northern Europe, where the death toll rose to 10 while hundreds of thousands suffered power blackouts and road, rail and air transport chaos.

The latest known victim was an elderly woman in north-central Sweden who was found dead in the snow outside her flat, wearing only her dressing gown.

Also in Sweden, a man was killed by a falling tree, and two Filipino sailors who were swept off a Dutch-registered ship into freezing waters remained unaccounted for, with the search called off.

Atlantic storm "Xaver", having barrelled across Britain, where two people died, packed winds of up to 158 kilometres (98 miles) per hour as it lashed Germany, also battering the Netherlands, Poland and southern Scandinavia.

Across northern Europe, emergency services battled to evacuate flooded harbour areas, sandbag sodden dykes and repair damage from toppled trees that crashed onto houses, highways, train tracks and electricity lines.

Blackouts hit 400,000 households in Poland and affected 50,000 people in Sweden and 4,000 homes in Germany, while thousands of air passengers were stranded as hundreds of flights were cancelled at Amsterdam, Berlin, Hamburg, Gdansk and other airports.

The highest ocean swells in decades -- whipped up by the strong winds and a large tidal surge -- smashed into dykes in northern Germany and the Netherlands, which however reported no major breaches.

Three people were killed in Poland when a tree crashed down onto their car near the northern town of Lembork, said firefighters' spokesman Bogdan Madej.

"Three people died on the spot, another was taken to hospital," he said.

The previous day in Britain, a lorry driver was killed when his vehicle toppled onto other cars in Scotland, while an elderly man riding a mobility scooter was struck by a falling tree in Nottinghamshire, central England.

Also Thursday, a 72-year-old woman died in Denmark after strong winds tipped over her van.

'Defences held up well'

Despite the deaths and turmoil, affected countries breathed a sigh of relief Friday that the damage wasn't worse -- mindful of catastrophic floods that hit North Sea countries in 1953, when more than 2,000 people died.

Britain reported the worst tidal surge since that disaster, but Environment Agency spokesman Tim Connell told the BBC that "the defences seemed to have held up well".

In northern Germany, the Elbe River harbour of Hamburg was under more than six metres of water -- the second highest level since records were first kept in 1825 -- leaving only the tops of lamp posts sticking out of the freezing waters.

Also in Hamburg, a fallen tree derailed a suburban commuter train which then hit a bridge post. The fire brigade freed six passengers from the train, one with minor injuries.

In northern Schleswig-Holstein state, emergency services were called out over 2,000 times, dealing with road and rail accidents that left four people injured, roofs ripped off houses and smashed windows.

In snowy Berlin, hefty winds brought down the 13-metre-tall (43-foot) Christmas tree outside the residence of President Joachim Gauck.

Still, German authorities said the worst had been averted, compared to disasters such as severe floods in 1962 that left 340 people dead.

"Germany held its breath and looked at the dykes, and they withstood" the high seas, said the environment minister of Schleswig-Holstein, Robert Habeck.

"We are much better prepared today" than in 1962, Christian Herold of the meteorological service told AFP, with dykes higher and building design improved.

In Scandinavia, the Oeresund road and rail bridge between Sweden and Denmark was closed overnight but reopened early Friday as authorities scaled down the alert level from the maximum 3 to 2.

However, several southern Swedish cities were still battling floods with water levels a metre and half higher near the ports in Helsingborg and Malmo, and all rail travel in the region was suspended until Saturday.

In the low-lying Netherlands, however, defences withstood water levels that had reached their highest point since the floods of 1953, public broadcaster NOS reported.

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