Winter storm heads towards Israel after paralyzing Turkey and Greece

Storm Elpis expected to bring snow and extreme winds to Israel on Wednesday.

By Associated Press

Rescue crews in Istanbul and Athens dug through snow and ice Tuesday to clear paralyzed roads and rescue people stranded overnight in their cars after snowstorms and a massive cold front brought much of Turkey and Greece to a standstill. Two storm-related deaths were reported as the Winter Storm Elpis moved on towards Cyprus, Israel and Lebanon.

The Israel Meteorological Service forecast an extreme drop in temperatures and winds reaching gusts of 40-50 miles per hour in some locations. Israel’s coastal cities are on alert for flooding. Snow is forecast to fall first in the north and gradually make its way down to Jerusalem before eventually turning to rain.

The rain and unseasonable cold temperatures expected to continue on Thursday and Friday.

However, the forecast for Israel does not include the extreme conditions that gripped Turkey, Greece and the Balkans.

Highways and roads in Istanbul became clogged Monday after the storm pounded the city of 16 million that straddles Europe and Asia — dropping more than 80 centimeters (31 inches) of snow in some areas. Stranded motorists spent the night in their cars, abandoned their vehicles to walk home or crowded subways and other limited public transportation.

All highways and main roads in Istanbul were reopened by Tuesday afternoon, Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Adil Karaismailoglu announced on Twitter, while Istanbul Gov. Ali Yerlikaya said restrictions on vehicles traveling into Istanbul were lifted.

Authorities also cleared a runway at Istanbul Airport on Tuesday, allowing limited flights to resume. Flights were suspended on Monday for safety reasons at the airport, where the roof of a cargo facility collapsed from the weight of the snow. Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, was also operating limited services.

Hundreds of passengers stranded at Istanbul Airport — a key travel hub — shouted “We need (a) hotel!” to protest their ordeal, the Cumhuriyet newspaper reported, and airport police were called in.

Huand Mahperi, who posted a video of the protest on Twitter, said the outcry came Tuesday morning after passengers were given conflicting information and were told that Turkish Airlines flights had been canceled until midnight.

In Athens, rescue crews freed up to 300 drivers trapped on a major highway that connects the Greek capital with the city’s international airport.

Drivers there had abandoned their cars and walked home. Others had trekked to a nearby train station, jumping over barriers to reach the platform after spending the night in their cars. Train service had been suspended, but a train was sent Tuesday to pick stragglers up.

The army was sent out overnight to deliver food and water to those trapped and to help free as many as possible. Officials said each trapped driver would receive 2,000 euros ($2,265) in compensation, which the highway administration accepted.

“It was a very difficult night and we faced unprecedented conditions,” Civil Protection and Climate Change Minister Christos Stylianides said. “I want to again express an apology from the state for all the difficulties that the (stranded) drivers faced.”

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By Tuesday, the heavy snowfall had mostly stopped but many streets in Athens remained blocked by fallen trees and several northern neighborhoods were without power. Authorities had ordered all but essential businesses shut on Tuesday, and have extended that for Wednesday in the wider Athens area and several other regions.

In the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, police said a homeless man who had been sleeping outdoors was found dead Tuesday. Local authorities said the 60-year-old had refused to relocate to a shelter.

In Turkey, authorities recovered the body of a 34-year-old who is believed to have died in heavy snowfall while trying to reach his village in Amasya province, 326 kilometers (202 miles) northwest of Ankara, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the snowfall around Istanbul would continue until Thursday and urged people not to venture out in private cars unless necessary. He said many of the stranded vehicles did not have snow tires.

“Nothing is moving. The snow plows can’t even reach us,” Ahmet Odabasi, 40, one of thousands who stranded overnight on a highway west of Istanbul, told The Associated Press.

The snowstorm, complete with thunder and lightning, hit the Athens area late Monday morning, the second year in a row that Greece has experienced a freak snowstorm.

The severe weather also brought rare snowfall to vacation resorts in Turkey’s southwest region, including Bodrum and Datca, with snow and slippery conditions blocking a highway linking the provinces of Mugla and Denizli. Antalya city center, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, saw its first snowfall in 29 years, the private NTV television reported.

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Authorities in Istanbul suspended intercity bus services Monday and blocked travel to the city from Turkey’s northwestern Thrace region. Civil servants were given leave until Thursday, except for those employed in security, health and transportation sectors. Schools across Turkey were already closed for a winter break and universities decided to close until Jan. 31.

The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, said the city provided shelter to around 1,500 homeless people. He said he hoped the snow would fill dams and bring relief to the parched region.

The Balkans was also gripped by freezing weather, with temperatures dropping way below freezing in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia.

Montenegrin authorities said a record national low temperature was confirmed in the northern village of Kosanica, which plunged to minus 33.2 C (minus 27.7 F). In Bosnia, ice formed on the Miljacka River after a minus 15 C (5 F) temperature was recorded in the capital of Sarajevo on Tuesday.

And the United Nations reported that displaced Syrians living in refugee camps in northern Syria were facing dire conditions as their tents collapsed under the weight of snow and freezing rain. Around 2.8 million refugees were said to be in the effected region.

World Israel News staff contributed to this report.