"A change in the weather always influences accident rates. In the first hour of a change of weather the number of accidents sometimes rises by 100%."
Pavol Haviernik of the Police Presidium's transport department
Remote villages and regions were cut off until snow ploughs could clear roads.
photo: Ján Svrček
The weather, which has seen temperatures plunge to near record lows in the last three weeks, has already claimed three lives in avalanches and could see more lost in road accidents, transport police say.
After heavy snow swept the country over the Christmas holidays, leading to the closure of many roads, a string of avalanches in and near tourist resorts, and travel chaos in most areas, clearer weather has brought temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius in some parts.
It has also brought ice to many roads and drivers are being advised to use safer roads in the south of the country rather than snowbound northern routes.
"A change in the weather always influences accident rates. In the first hour of a change of weather the number of accidents sometimes rises by 100%.
"Drivers underestimate the weather and drive quickly. On average we have about 150 accidents a day. On January 2 we had 218, the next day 206. As a result of bad weather two people have already lost their lives," said Pavol Haviernik of the Police Presidium's transport department January 4.
President Schuster was also involved in a pile-up on January 2 in severe weather (see story page 2). Driving winds pushing snow across the road saw his car slide into the back of an earlier accident near the town of Nitra. He suffered only slight injuries.
Heavy snow, which made driving on almost all roads treacherous, swept the country between Christmas and New Year, adding to earlier falls throughout late November and December.
The new snow fell heaviest in the northern regions of Slovakia. The Žilina region saw some of the worst conditions with snow falling almost continuously in some parts of the area for four days between December 30 and January 2. Some villages in the region recorded snow 160 centimetres deep.
Mountain ranges were also badly affected by the weather. Train routes linking the town of Poprad and some High Tatras resorts were closed January 2 and 3.
There were also a number of avalanches, two of which were deadly. Three people were killed in the space of five days. On December 26, a 54 year-old woman died when an avalanche struck the village of Turecká pri Starých Horách in the Veľká Fatra mountains, and a 17 year-old boy was killed in an avalanche in mountains in the Orava region.
On December 30 a man was killed as he slept when an avalanche swept onto the Pod Šturcom hotel, again near Turecká. Two other people were also hurt, but later recovered in hospital.
Nearby villages were immediately evacuated and local mountain rescue services warned of a number of avalanche threats.
"There is an avalanche threat on almost every steep hill. It's not good," said Vlado Vitel of the Velka Fatra mountain services.
"There's huge danger. For this time of the year it's very unusual to have so many avalanches," said chief of the central Slovak Orava region's mountain services, Pavel Brnčal.
The entire Veľká Fatra mountain was put on level four avalanche alert, just one below the maximum danger level of five, following the fatal avalanches. Mountain services have said that while the weather has improved there are still serious avalanche dangers.
They have also advised no one to hike in the High Tatras region over the next few days.
Police also say that the freezing temperatures have claimed their first victims of the New Year. Two people were found on January 1 in Bratislava. Another two people were found frozen to death on the same day in Nitra and a third in Zlaté Moravce in western Slovakia.
The freezing weather in Slovakia has been mirrored across central Europe. By January 3 two thirds of the Czech Republic had been declared a near disaster zone after some of the heaviest snowfalls for years.
Poland was also caught in the grip of the freeze. Following heavy snow, temperatures also dropped to below minus 30 degrees Celsius in some areas just after the New Year and avalanches hit resorts on the Polish side of the High Tatras.
Meteorologists have said that Slovakia recorded its fourth coldest December since the turn of the 20th century. Only 1902, 1933 and 1963 have been colder.
The cold weather looks set for the coming weeks and January has already seen some temperature records broken.
In Sliač, near Zvolen, the temperature fell to minus 25 degrees Celsius on January 4 - the lowest for the last 50 years.
However, there are growing fears among inhabitants of the worst hit regions that a thaw soon or in spring could bring catastrophic floods.
Local authorities say that they are monitoring the situation and are prepared to deal with a rapid thaw if and when it occurs.
However, many weathermen have predicted it is unlikely that there will be any problems with melting snow before spring.
14. Jan 2002 at 0:00 | Ed Holt