Wednesday 20 September 2017

Government forced into catch-up as country faces key 24 hours

Heavy snowfall predicted to hit most of country today and tonight

Jerome Reilly and ALISON O'RIORDAN

IRELAND is heading into a critical 24 hours with much of the country facing heavy snowfalls today and tonight and Irish embassies around Europe ordered to source supplies of rock salt to keep the roads open.

The Government has been forced into playing a desperate game of catch-up with salt supplies dangerously low in every local authority area.

All resources of salt and grit are being focused on treating main roads in the early hours of tomorrow morning in order to get people to work and keep the economy moving. But there is some good news. The cold spell should end by next weekend with a warmer Atlantic front. But even that could cause problems and flooding may occur as snow and ice thaws.

The Government's response to the crisis was blasted yesterday, with Labour's Tommy Broughan claiming they had "gone missing" in the same way they reneged on their responsibilities during the banking and flooding crises last year.

Environment Minister John Gormley -- dubbed the "Minister for Snow" in the absence of the on-holiday Transport Minister Noel Dempsey -- defended the administration's response, though he admitted even he didn't know the whereabouts of his ministerial colleague last week.

He said he didn't think the administration could have done more to tackle the crisis.

Asked if he felt he was a "patsy" for Fianna Fail in the absence of Mr Dempsey, he replied: "No I am not going to use those words.

"I am here to do what I can do as Environment Minister. I was given this role... It was I who went to the Taoiseach and said: 'Look we need to have a co-ordinating role here.' And that is what has happened." As late as yesterday afternoon at 3pm, Mr Gormley said he still didn't know when Mr Dempsey was due back in the country.

"I have a job to do. I believe in public service and in doing my best.

"I am a persistent individual and I have plenty of stamina and I want to do my best," Mr Gormley said.

More than 70 flights at Dublin airport were suspended early yesterday morning as heavy snow hit the east of the country but flights resumed after lunch.

However, thousands of passengers were facing long delays as the backlog was cleared. The Dublin Airport Authority ordered the closure crews on stand-by after friction tests carried out on runways raised safety concerns. The head of the National Roads Authority (NRA), Michael Egan, admitted to the Sunday Independent that it was now touch and go about whether the dwindling supplies of rock salt can be eked out before two consignments totalling 10,000 tonnes of arrive this week.

But the situation is now slightly better because remaining supplies have been moved to areas which will be worst hit by snow in the next 48 hours. And diplomatic staff at Irish embassies across the continent were requested to trawl their international contacts to search out alternative sources of rock salt.

The hunt was successful with Ireland's embassy in Poland helping to clinch a deal to bring 25,000 tonnes from Poland and Lithuania.

More salt is also expected from the North.

"We are at critical levels in relation to current salt levels and we are working to manage the salt to best effect and keep the country running and the major national routes open. Rock salt is the most vital commodity and the most effective product to use because it has the effect of creating a barrier on the road."

"We got some salt through Foynes port on Friday and there will be a further delivery of 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes this week coming into Cork, and we are hoping to source additional supplies.

"Whether we will actually run out of salt is difficult to say. We openly acknowledge the situation is crucial.

"We are facing the prospect of snowfalls over the weekend. We are at risk in the short term," Mr Egan said.

Gardai are urging motorists to travel only if necessary, and to reduce their speed in the icy conditions.

All major outdoor sports events have been called off, including racing, GAA and rugby. The last remaining fixture, the Magners league game between Munster and Llanelli Scarlets due to be played today, was cancelled after a lunchtime pitch inspection yesterday. Gardai are also advising people not to walk across the ice on frozen canals, ponds, lakes and flooded areas after reports of dangerous and foolhardy antics on frozen waterways. And one man was reported to have pushed a companion in a wheelchair on a frozen lake in Co Cavan.

The HSE is urging the public to continue to look out for their elderly relatives and neighbours during this prolonged period of cold weather as such individuals face heightened risks because they can become isolated in their own homes without adequate access to heat, proper nutrition and -- in some cases -- medical care.

There were reports of icy roads across the country, with the counties of Monaghan, Cavan and Wicklow the worst affected areas.

And Sligo County Council staff have been working to repair a burst water main in the south of the county, although a full service was expected to be restored by nightfall yesterday.

The army had moved into Co Leitrim yesterday to help the council deal with the consequences of the extreme weather conditions, assisting with gritting in Ballinamore, Dromahair, Kiltoghert, and Manorhamilton. Elsewhere, Defence Force personnel who were placed on stand-by to assist any local authority which requested help were involved in a number of operations -- and these included helping staff at Drogheda Hospice get to their work, and gritting roads in Newbridge, Clane and Maynooth in Co Kildare, and in Cork city.

An Army all-terrain vehicle was also used to assist the Civil Defence move animal fodder in Wicklow.

Troopers also assisted the meal on wheels service in Gormanstown, Co Meath, and delivery of medicines to Harold's Cross hospice in Dublin as well as other operations transporting hospital patients and medical staff around the country.

Hospitals across the country remained busy, with many reporting a 70 per cent increase in the number of patients presenting themselves at accident and emergency units with fractures requiring treatment.

Emergency medicine consultants are reporting that a high percentage of these fractures are complex and require surgery. Doctors in Cork reported treating 1,000 fractures since the cold snap began. Meanwhile, Gort in Co Galway had temperatures as low as minus 13C yesterday morning, causing pipes to freeze over.

Units of the Co Galway fire brigade brought water to the affected areas, while water stations were also set up in Cavan and Limerick.

Western areas of Galway city including Knocknacarra and Barna were also without water. Two snow ploughs were in operation from mid-morning on the M50 orbital route in Dublin after a heavy snow shower hit most eastern coastal areas shortly after first light. Irish Farmers' Association spokesman Thomas Ryan said that the snow and freezing conditions are presenting growing difficulties for farmers trying to look after livestock and crops.

"Freezing pipes have left livestock without drinking water; slippery farmyards have made working conditions much more hazardous; and milk collections and animal feed deliveries have been disrupted because of the disastrous state of access roads.

"At least €15m worth of potatoes, vegetables and other crops have been destroyed due to the frost. Farmers have had to spend many extra hours every day coping with these difficulties." There is now the prospect that even some main national routes may have be closed in the next 48 hours.

"The issue about whether roads will be closed is real. We will liaise with local authorities and the gardai to make the call on that," Mr Egan said.

He added that the NRA strategy will be to focus available resources on key routes.

"After that it will largely be a matter for local authorities and the gardai," he said.

Experts estimate that between 15,000-20,000 tonnes are required to de-ice the roads next week; but even though the NRA says they have been encouraged by their search for alternative supplies, there will be a lead-in time before they arrives. While snow fell in the east of the country yesterday, road conditions all over the country remained extremely dangerous with Galway and Mayo among the worst affected counties. The NRA is actively seeking to source additional supplies of rock salt in particular, or any other suitable chemicals.

"We are liaising with established importers. We are in contact with Irish embassies throughout Europe and trawling the continent.

"At this stage we are getting positive feedback from a number of areas and we are actively following up on those leads. There is a lead in time. There is not a short-term solution in relation to the week-end and early next week.

"We will have to deal with that within the existing resources within the country.

Due to worsening weather and underfoot conditions, UCD has closed the campuses at Belfield and Blackrock until January 12 for health and safety reasons.

The campuses will be closed to vehicular access and external visitors from 2pm at Belfield and 5pm at Blackrock. Staff have been asked not to enter the campus except for essential academic or operational activity.

National and secondary schools will be closed until Thursday.

Most pupils will already have lost a full week's tuition by this Wednesday and the Education Minister is likely to look for the days to be made up at the February mid-term break -- or by extending the school year, which would be problematic at second-level because of the June exams.

The minister will consult with teacher unions, managers and parents on "ways in which the impact of the closures could be minimised", particularly for leaving and junior certificate pupils.

Sunday Independent

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