Paris' 'Monster' Blizzard

photo: bar le 16, paris 3
In the Temple quarter, Le 16 Bar in the Rue Pastourelle.

Night of Total Chaos Followed By Normality

Paris:- Sunday, 17. January 1999:- Last Tuesday about 17:00 I looked out of the window and saw that it was snowing. Wind was blowing the tiny flakes in waves as if it were washing powder. In a half-hour, the ground was white. From inside, it looked harmless.

At the same time, Paris and the Ile-de-France were just getting into the usual evening stride of rush-hour. Some of the commuters looked out their windows too, did a calculation and decided to dine in town; until the traffic mess that would surely develop, resolved itself.

But most commuters and other travellers blithely jumped in their cars, vans, trucks and motorcycles, and set off for home or their usual destinations.

By the time it quit snowing, there was a measly five centimetres of it lying on the ground, and around Paris there were 300 kilometres of solid traffic jams.

There wasn't much snow but what there was, was very slippery. Paris has its own heat, melthing it, but 40 or 50scan: le parisien 13.01.99 traffic lights that failed in a crucial moment, did not make forward movement any easier.

Every major route out of the city was jammed tight, and the crush rolled backwards into the city. Highway trucks lost all traction and slid into the emergency lanes. It was chaos total.

Le Parisien's front page on Wednesday.

Some drivers managed to reach home after taking nine hours on the road. Others abandoned the effort and slept in their cars. Emergency services were stuck in the jams too and got nowhere. There were hundreds of thousands of people stuck inside their little tin wagons, running low on fuel, without anything to eat or drink, and in many cases, with absolutely no way to escape.

The portable phones did not help much, other than to phone home. Radio broadcasts did not help much, because they only told drivers that they were in a horrible jam.

Where drivers could, they assaulted hotels for rooms and restaurants for food. Strangers shared rooms and the restaurants ran out of food. Commutes normally lasting 45 minutes, turned into four-hour marathons.

On Wednesday, Le Parisien ran photos of the chaos. TV-news showed kids having harmless snowball fights under the Tour Eiffel and on the Champs-Elysées.

There were no TV shots of the A-13, the west autoroute that runs across the ridge of the Marly forest - with only a couple of exits. This wasn't on the TV-news unless a news crew happened to be trapped in it.

On Thursday, Le Parisien was looking for someone to blame. TV-news reports about the recent terrible storms in the United States' midwest were fresh in the editor's minds when they went looking for culprits.

They learned that the weather forecasters had issued a bulletin Tuesday morning, predicting snowfall. Their timing was off by an hour or two, but it was a good prediction.

Somehow this prediction - and only five centimetres of snow fell - didn't reach or didn't impress the traffic control centre. The other concerned emergency centresphoto: sales at tati did not inform local authorities of the coming snow. Public and private radio stations were not informed particularly.

Totally unconcerned shoppers at Tati on Wednesday.

So, despite the good forecast, it was a surprise snowfall nobody was ready for. By the time it was obvious, it was too late to take any effective counter-measures. The cork was well-stuck in the neck of the bottle.

By Wednesday morning, the only traces of Paris' big blizzard were the melting remains of shabby snowmen, and a lot of people staying home to sleep it off.

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Winter Sports Editorial

I have been idly watching and listening to the Winter Sports news on TV when I can see it past Max's head and hear it over the constant mumble of my dining partners.

Downhill racing looks pretty much the same year after year. The mountains are covered with snow, year after year. If they are not, then ski resort owners are shown, wringing their hands, year after year.

One item that has been particularly irritating, is the constant reports of skiers getting wiped out by avalanches, because they were skiing 'hors piste.'

'Hors piste' means they were skiing, or mushing about, on a part of the mountain designated as 'off limits.' Or, to put it another way, the mountain specialists have marked areas deemed 'safe' and the skiers are supposed to remain within them. When they don't, they sometimes die.

I can imagine it. You travel all the way to your favorite Alpine resort, and when you get there the only place safe to ski is in the parking lot of the chalet - which is surrounded by lots of mountains covered with virgin snow. Might as well have stayed home.

I don't remember this 'hors piste' from my own 'home' mountains and I have puzzled about it for a long time. I think I've figured it out. I once flew over the Alps and was truly impressed with their sheer size. I didn't think such big mountains could fit into Europe.

However, Europe itself is small, and there are a number of seas and oceans, as well as Africa, relatively close to the mountains. When conditions are right, they get a lot of snow. But, because of the nearby seas, weather conditions change very quickly.

The cycle goes like this: snow falls and everything is grand. Then a warm wind melts the surface of thephoto: cafe le balto snow during the daytime, and this freezes into a crust at night. Then more snow falls on top this crust, lying lightly on it. This second layer of snow is a bit like a snowboard; it is ready to slip and slide away.

Le Balto, another café in the Temple quarter.

This process goes on and off all winter long, and there may be short intervals between thawing, freezing and new snowfalls. All of this adds up to great avalanche potential. If you ski in the wrong place, you could be taking a big risk.

The mountain professionals know all about this and they are out on the slopes, constantly testing the snow for its stability or lack of it. From these tests, they can mark the 'safe' zones, where skiing is relatively risk-free.

But people are people and snow and mountains are exhilarating, so some of them go looking for the 'hors piste' areas.

When the mountain professionals aren't testing the risk level, they are usually spending a lot of time, equipment and energy looking for winter sports people who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, by tons and tons of loose snow.

They always find them. Even if they have to wait until the snow melts.

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