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Greece Grapples with Extensive Destruction After Flooding in Athens


Passengers are silhouetted as they wade through high water after evacuating a bus stuck in a flooded underpass in southern Athens, Oct. 14, 2021.

A two-day storm in Athens last week killed a 70-year-old farmer, whose car was washed away as he was rushing to tend to his herd of sheep. Dozens of other people, including tourists, were rescued from the floodwaters that destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses.

Roads turned into rivers, homes and apartment blocks collapsed like decks of cards and dozens of children at a school in Athens were ordered to stand on their desks to be saved as floodwaters surged into their classrooms like a tsunami.

The storm is the latest environmental calamity to hit Greece after devastating fires razed thousands of hectares of forest just two months ago, threatening even the nation's capital.

And yet it is Athens, once more, Europe's oldest metropolis and its 5 million residents who find themselves hardest hit, reeling again – because of long-standing flaws in infrastructure and urban planning that authorities have failed to remedy as the ancient city, they say, has pushed its way aggressively into modernity.

Speaking to a local broadcaster, Yiorgos Patoulis , the governor of the greater region of Athens acknowledged the deficiencies but said he could not be held accountable for decades of problems related to the capital's urban planning.

The anger and despair are so intense this time around that an Athens prosecutor has singled out a near-deadly incident, ordering an urgent investigation, hoping to spark action from authorities.

The case involves dozens of commuters, including children who were traveling in a bus. The vehicle was immobilized by water that engulfed an underpass on a main motorway, nearly submerging the vehicle and its passengers not far from the center of Athens.

Critics have long blamed what they describe as the capital's anarchic planning and years of infrastructure failings that have seen streams, that once snaked down the hills of this ancient capital and its surrounding plains, blocked and cemented … turned into motorways, streets or even parking lots, instead.

Without the creation of proper drainage, the lightest downpour here leads to flooding.

After devastating fires in August, razed forests that ringed the capital were not cleared, pushing trunks and tons of debris into already clogged drains across Athens.

"I've never seen these drains cleared by anyone for as long as I know," a local woman told a television network. "Look at them," she said, standing just centimeters away from where the bus became stuck. She said the drains are clogged with sticks, stones, garbage and tons of masks.

Similar complaints about a lack of infrastructure and state response have poured in from all parts of the country.

Dimitris Stanitsas, the mayor of Ithaki, said his island would have been swallowed by floodwaters had local crews not moved to shatter pavements and roadblocks to allow waters gushing through roads and side streets, into the sea.

The state has to finally take interest and undertake vital infrastructure projects to better shield its people and the country as a whole, he said.

State spending was cut dramatically during a 10-year recession, leaving key development works either idle or incomplete. Among them, a state-of-the arts drainage system, close to wear the bus and its passengers nearly drowned.

The sweeping destruction caused by the storm has sparked fierce debate with a blame game played out among state, local authorities and construction companies.

But with the fallout of climate change already obvious, experts like Efthymios Lekkas, a professor specializing in natural disasters, say the blame game is diverting attention from what has to happen; rapid state reaction.

"It's no longer about climate change," Lekkas said. "We are living a climate crisis, and phenomena like these are going to be so much more common. If Greece and its capital are to be shielded, then they have to be fitted with proper infrastructure."

Government officials contacted by VOA were not available for comment.

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