Heavy snowfall in Alps leaves 7 dead and strands tourists

A view of the ski slopes of the French alps ski resort of Tignes, on Jan 10, 2019.
A view of the ski slopes of the French alps ski resort of Tignes, on Jan 10, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (NYTIMES/AFP/XINHUA) - Parts of Europe were hit by heavy snowfall, paralysing travel and tourism with conditions that left at least seven people dead.

Heavy snowfall and strong winds are projected to continue in Austria and southern parts of Germany until at least Friday (Jan 11), bringing an additional 50cm of snow over 24 hours to parts of the Alps that have already seen as much as 300cm over the past week.

Several regions have declared states of emergency as some roads, railways and ski resorts remain closed.

Hundreds of tourists and residents are cut off in Austria because of unusually high avalanche risks. The weather has been so severe that helicopters that would usually be used for controlled avalanches are grounded.

A break in the weather on Friday could allow for avalanche crews to clear some roads.

North of the Austrian border, in the German state of Bavaria, many schools have closed and rail service on many lines has been cancelled.

Avalanche warnings are active in most Alpine areas of the state, and the town of Miesbach declared a state of emergency on Monday.

 

Ongoing snowfall and icy roads have caused 35km of a highway in Baden-Wurttemberg to come a complete standstill until early on Thursday, forcing hundreds of truck and car drivers to spend the night on the road.

In the municipality of Jachenau, the fire brigade is keeping the local grocery store stocked since commercial trucks are unable to reach the area, according to Mr Oliver Platzer, a spokesman of the Bavarian ministry of interior.

Davos, Switzerland, where many world and business leaders are to gather for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at the end of the month, has reported nearly 63cm of snow.

While the amount of snow that has fallen in the past weeks varies widely from area to area, it is unusual for so much snow to fall over such an extended period of time, according to Mr Thomas Wostal, a spokesman at Austria's Central Meteorological Office.

"In terms of amount of snow over 10 days, statistically this only happens every 30 to 100 years, depending on the region," he said.

Several ski stations in the regions of Styria, Upper and Lower Austria have also had to close, out of fear of avalanches, trees toppling under the weight of snow, or being cut off from the electricity network.

Hohentauern, a village in the central part of the country, has been cut off since last Saturday. Roughly 270 visitors, including about 60 children, are waiting for one of the two passes leading from the village to open again.

"The village is safe and we're keeping the streets clear," said Mr Franz Haas, owner of a hotel in Hohentauern. "The children are enjoying outdoor walks, tobogganing and the building of snowmen."

Because fewer tourists than usual are staying in the village, and because there are farms nearby, there is no shortage of food, Mr Haas said, and there is enough gas to heat cabins and hotels for at least two more weeks.

Much of the country is on its highest avalanche alert level, with seven skiers and snowshoe hikers having died since last Saturday and two hikers missing. Most of the victims perished in avalanches but emergency services say two of them died when falling into deep snowdrifts and suffocating.

Hundreds of soldiers and firefighters have been working alongside other public employees and volunteers to clear roads and roofs buried in the snowfall.

Brigadier Anton Waldner, army commander for the Salzburg region, told AFP that this year's exceptional snowfall had left his men with a "difficult situation" as soldiers worked to clear snow off the roof of a school in the town of Lungoetz in huge 2m-high blocks.

His forces were carrying out seven such operations and 300 men were on standby, BG Waldner said.

Meanwhile the country's tourism sector is also feeling the chill.

"We are 50 per cent down on our short-term bookings," said Ms Petra Nocker-Schwarzenbacher, head of tourism at Austria's chamber of commerce. "Everyone's watching the weather," she said.