Saturday, 27 February 2010

It’s the season of falling ice, a perilous time in Kyiv

Critics blame slow municipal government for not doing more to clear ice blocks from building rooftops?

The snowfalls have been more than brief flurries this winter. And the layers of packed snow and ice have brought their own hardship: One person has been killed and thousands have been injured on Kyiv’s slippery streets.

Until the spring thaw, Kyivans are warned to walk as far from buildings as they can and to look up so as to get out of the way of falling icicles and ice blocks.

Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky, long thought to be on vacation somewhere warm, even snapped into action. He asked citizens to alert him about dangerous ice-block formations on the city’s roofs and promised to remove them – pronto. If only the same could happen with the city’s uncollected garbage.

“This is a very serious question, so I’m taking it under my personal control. I appeal to all Kyivans not to be indifferent and to call me personally 1551 and report icicles,” he said on Feb 19. The mayor asked companies and state authorities that manage properties to pick up ice picks and clear off snow-clad roofs.

For some people, however, this wake-up call came too late. Pensioner Galyna Zinyuk, 78, was one of them. She went out for a walk with her husband on Feb 21 to the Park of Glory in the Pechersk district and was hit by a brick of ice. It dropped from the roof of the National State Transport University and landed right on Zinyuk’s head. According to witness reports, she died on the spot.

By law, owners of commercial and state properties are responsible for getting rid of the snow. When Zinyuk died, the prosecutors opened a criminal case against the transport university, which failed to remove icicles on time.

As if waking from a long winter sleep, city authorities called a few emergency meetings to respond to the icy crisis. “All the dangerous places near buildings should be sealed off with warning tapes, and I particularly request that Kyiv residents walk around such zones,” Chernovetsky said.

Municipal workers followed the orders, cordoning off many pavements with red-and-white tape. Cars parked along curbs took a good share of the remaining walking space, leaving people the choice of venturing under roofs or dodging speeding traffic.

“We receive 30 to 35 people daily,” said Yevhen Kasyan, a doctor in the Shevchenko accident clinic. It’s twice more than last year, he said, and "there are more fractures than before.”

The mayor’s office reported 10 cases of people hurt by icicles within the last few days. The total number of people who suffered from unusually severe weather conditions this winter is yet to be announced. The casualty list, however, may hit thousands.

Yevheniya Alexandrova, 29, suffered a concussion when she slipped while walking on the side street. “In the city center, they [communal workers] at least clean something. In residential districts, roads have not just turned into skating rinks, they are like icebergs,” Alexandrova said. “My leg was injured, but I didn’t realize that my head was hurt too. I called the local clinic but no one was there on the weekend. In the accident ward, they [doctors] said they did not have an X-ray unit, so I had to wait until Monday to find out [my diagnosis].”

Alexandrova did not sue the communal authorities responsible for clearing pavements. “To invite a plumber, you have to wait until he sobers up. So when it comes to a complaint as big as mine, it’s useless to fight,” she said.

City authorities in January admitted they did not cope with snow well. Chernovetsky even offered people not to pay for street-cleaning services if their yards were overwhelmed with snow. Many Kyiv residents received their monthly utility bills with deductions for snow trouble as small as Hr 2.

“If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny,” said Alexandrova, who spent almost two weeks in bed.

It’s one thing to flap and flounder as the snow piles higher, and it is another to make timely decisions.

Building climber Yury Nikolayev from Actual Service cleaning business said that the city woke up too late to the problem. “Only when overwhelmed by snow, they started acting. Before that, they waited indifferently. Just yesterday, I had one company ring me up at 5 a.m. because ice broke through their window, which could have been removed beforehand.”

He said there are still many icicles in the city and, with the weather getting warmer, they would be showering down in the blink of an eye. “If a five-kilo ice block falls from the fourth floor, it hits the ground with the power of more than 75 kilos,” said Nikolayev.

Anxious citizens say it is time for business owners and city officials to do their math and remove the dangerous ice clusters before it is too late.

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