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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Extreme cold front in Moscow

January 18, 2006

They're trying to break into jail as city heads for -40C

VITALY has tried being drunk and disorderly, disturbing the peace, even assaulting a friend ? anything to get inside a Moscow police cell.
Any other week, the 42-year-old vagrant would do anything to avoid the city?s notorious police. But with a cold front from Siberia pushing temperatures towards -40C ? their lowest in more than half a century ? getting arrested has become a matter of life or death.
?At least it?s warm in a cell,? he said. ?In this weather, if you can?t find a warm place to sleep, you die.?
On Monday two people froze to death and 14 were taken to hospital with hypothermia in the capital as temperatures plunged from zero to -28C.
Russians are no strangers to harsh weather, but the cold snap has come as a shock after a series of relatively mild winters. The meteorological service told The Times that in the next few days it expected to register some of the coldest temperatures in the capital since 1940, when it hit -42C. The coldest temperature recorded in Russia was -71C (-96F) in the northern region of Yakutia in the 1950s.
Moscow authorities responded by ordering police to suspend their usual practice of turfing the homeless out of stairwells, metro stops and railway stations. Health officials also warned the elderly and infirm to stay at home and those with heart conditions to pause in their doorways to adjust to the cold before going outside.
But it is not just the homeless, old and sick who are at risk from the cold front that has wrought havoc across eastern and central Russia. Many Muscovites fear that the Siberian freeze will cut off their supplies of electricity and hot water, which is still pumped in massive pipes from Soviet-era heating stations.
The celebrated Botkinskaya Hospital suffered a two-hour power cut on Monday, according to one doctor there. ?Thank God no one was in the operating theatre or they would have died,? she said.
Yesterday city authorities reduced power supplies to some businesses by up to 90 per cent to conserve energy for hospitals and other basic infrastructure. They said that private homes would not be affected. Nevertheless, the power cuts have rekindled anger at Anatoly Chubais, the oligarch who heads the electricity monopoly and who was widely blamed for a huge blackout in Moscow last summer. Mr Chubais threatened in November to reduce the power to non-essential points if it was below -25C for three days or more.
Nestor Serebryannikov, the former head of the Moscow municipal power utility, said the cuts were unprecedented. ?The capital for the first time has come up against a situation where, due to the cold, its demands for energy may well exceed supplies,? he said.
Heating systems have been stretched to breaking point in other towns and cities. In St Petersburg an accident at a power plant left 45 blocks without electricity or heating; in Komi province in northwestern Russia, 83 people ? including 66 children ? were moved away from their village after a heating failure; in the Samara region in the southwest, a burst main left nearly 10,000 people without central heating or water as the temperature fell to -36 C. There were also heating problems in the western Siberian province of Tomsk when temperatures fell to -53C, the lowest in a century.
So extreme is the cold that authorities in Moscow and St Petersburg have had to supply buses with special ?Arctic? diesel fuel. Traffic policemen have also been issued with traditional Russian felt boots.
Moscow Zoo implemented emergency procedures for the first time since the winter of 1978-79, moving most of its animals into heated pavilions. Zookeepers also smashed holes in two ponds to allow aquatic birds access to water and laid straw on the ice to protect their feet. Only a handful of animals, including Amur tigers and, strangely, the African white-tailed gnu, preferred to remain outside.
A few human beings were enjoying the cold, however. Schoolchildren were told they could stay at home if temperatures were below -20C in the morning.
And the ?walruses? ? swimmers who plunge through holes in the ice in the belief that it cures disease, cleanses the soul and improves the libido ? said they would carry on as normal. Four morning and night dips will take place in Moscow tonight to celebrate Orthodox Epiphany.
  • Record snowfalls in Japan, with 13ft drifts, killed 100 and injured at least 1,000
  • An unusually cold winter has killed hundreds in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, with Delhi seeing 0.2C, its lowest temperature in 70 years
  • Sydney recorded its highest temperature since 1939 this month at 44.2C
  • Freezing weather and lows of -12C meant much of Britain recorded its coldest December for a decade, while southern England had its driest year since 1921

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