Life grinds to a halt in Slovenia's frozen west
POSTOJNA, Slovenia (Reuters) - Cars stand entombed in a crystal-like casing near the deserted railway station in Postojna. Trees and electricity pylons lie felled in the snow by the sheer weight of ice enveloping them.
The damage wrought in western Slovenia by a freak ice storm and blizzards could take weeks or months to repair in a tiny EU member-state already going through its worst economic crisis in two decades as an independent state.
In Postojna, the administrative center of Notranjska region, hardest hit by the cold snap, life has ground to a halt.
"There have been no trains since last Friday," said Radenko Krasovac, a worker at the deserted railway station.
"In the 35 years I've worked here, I've never seen anything like this. I can't speak of numbers, but the damage will be huge. It will take another two months before trains can run again."
Over three days, a temperature quirk in the region squeezed between the Alps and the Adriatic sea saw rain rather than snow fall and rapidly turn to ice, coating parked cars, petrol stations, street signs and houses. Bank ATM machines were frozen and telephone and electricity lines dragged down.
Some 50,000 homes in the country of 2 million people have been cut off from power and authorities say roughly half of Slovenia's forests, 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres), has been damaged. Snow is forecast.
In Postojna, a 30-metre Y-shaped pylon had been felled by the weight of ice, testimony to the scale of the disaster.
First official estimates of the extent of the damage are expected at a government session on Thursday, but the recovery will certainly take weeks or months. Slovenia's pristine nature is a big draw for tourists.
"At first they said we'd be here three days. Now they told us two weeks, maybe even longer," said Mateusz Frym, part of a team of Austian emergency workers who came with 26 generators to help in the effort.
"We have a lot of snow (in Austria), but this is crazy, really crazy," he said.
On Wednesday, the government cut excise on diesel to help free up agricultural and forest machinery to tackle the crisis.
Firemen and forestry workers toiled in backroads around Postojna, dragging and chopping fallen trees. Few shops were open. Banks and the local post office were shuttered.
A crisis center was opened in the town.
"It's for everyone who wants to warm up, have some tea or soup," said Miha Uhelj, a worker at the center. "A lot of people have been without electricity and heating since Friday and temperatures in their apartments are very low."
Hans Peterlich Luchein, an ethnic German from Postojna, was one of those who took up the offer.
"In my flat, the temperature falls to minus 3 (Celsius) at night because I don't have a wooden stove. I have to sleep in my winter jacket," said the 50-year-old unemployed waiter.
The crisis could hardly come at a worse time for Slovenia, with its economy in recession and its banks bailed out by the government in December to stop them buckling under the weight of billions of euros in toxic debt.
"Slovenia has witnessed a major natural disaster," Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek said while visiting the badly-hit town of Ljubno ob Savinji. "I'm proud of the firefighters, civil protection and army. They're working day and night to bring the situation under control."
Local children were among the only residents rejoicing.
"It's good because there's no school, so we spend our time sledging and playing snowball fights," said 12-year-old Mark Kavcic. "In the evening, there's no TV or computer so we sit and talk, just like in the olden days," he grinned.
(Additional reporting by Almir Demirovic in Ljubljana; Editing by Matt Robinson and Ralph Boulton)