Karditsa, Greece – I came across Matoula Tzela as she threw shrink-wrapped bricks of exercise books onto the pavement outside her stationery shop in the village of Palamas.
Muddy floodwater had risen almost a metre inside her shop, and the notebooks, along with backpacks, Playmobil toy sets and physics and maths textbooks on the lower shelves were now worthless. They would have been sold this week, as the Greek school year begins.
She is uninsured, and still owes money for consigned merchandise, but Tzela and her husband feel lucky.
Palamas sits between two small rivers, which swelled with the rainfall brought by Storm Daniel late last Monday. Tzela was among the first to hear the coming flood.
“The river burst its banks and we could hear the rumble at 3:30am [on Tuesday],” she told Al Jazeera.
“You can’t imagine what a noise water makes.”
Tzela immediately got on the phone, and likely saved lives.
“We called everyone we knew. They were all asleep and would have drowned in their homes – our neighbour, my brother. My father’s house was in a metre and a half of water.”
Emergency messages sent from the Civil Protection Authority did not start alarming on people’s mobile phones until three hours later, Tzela said. And it wasn’t for her lack of trying to raise awareness.
“I was calling the fire service in Larissa and they said, ‘We’re not responsible’. I said, ‘We are drowning. There are three of us and we are on the balcony’.
“They said, ‘Give us your number and we’ll be in touch’. Nobody called. I was calling [the nationwide emergency hotline] 112 from the morning until night. Nobody picked up.”
Palamas belongs to the jurisdiction of Karditsa, a city on the Thessaly plain, Greece’s breadbasket.
Yet it doesn’t appear that the fire service in Larissa, Thessaly’s capital, alerted the Karditsa fire service. Even the local church bell, which usually acts as an emergency signal in villages, remained silent.
“No bells rang. Nothing happened,” Tzela said.
Tzela is not the only one incensed at the failure of regional and central government to evacuate people. When Thessaly’s Governor Kostas Agorastos visited Palamas four days after it flooded, he and his bodyguards were attacked by irate villagers who now face financial ruin.
The local supermarket threw out a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of goods. Butchers threw out rotting meat. A civil engineer was sunning his soaked records and charts on the pavement.
There had been plenty of warning that this could happen, Apostolos Kalatzis said.
“Three years ago, Karditsa flooded, and now the surrounding villages. No flood prevention was done. And we’ve had floods in this area in the 1990s. Millions have been spent, but on nothing substantial,” Kalatzis told Al Jazeera.
“We’re living with climate change now. Things are going to get worse. People need to be able to live, work and invest in their locality. Otherwise, they should tell us this area is uninhabitable and we should leave.”
To the southwest of Palamas, the stench was beginning to rise from what had been the village’s sheep pens. Bloated carcasses drifted across a brown lake towards the ring road.
Things were even worse in the surrounding villages of Metamorphosi, Marathea, Vlohos and Koskina, which remained completely submerged days after the flood, and where high fatalities are expected.
Local volunteers say they were the first to arrive on the scene with their fishing boats to rescue those trapped on their rooftops.
“I’ve never cried, but yesterday I cried,” said Valantis Mesdanitis, a volunteer from Karditsa, who saw a friend’s post on social media calling for help and joined the effort. What he saw shocked him.
“We saw people floating inside their homes through the windows… we didn’t count how many, but… I believe we’re going to have a high death toll,” he told Al Jazeera.
“In Koskina, where we rescued lots of people, we saw the claw marks on the windows of people who tried to get out of their homes.”
Ioanna Goulianou and her two children were rescued from Marathea on September 8, when the 521st Marines Battalion from Volos put their inflatable boats in the floodwater and joined volunteers to pluck people off roofs.
Rescuers brought them to where the water shallowed to a metre deep, offloaded them onto trailers that locals had brought hitched to their tractors, and went back to look for more.
“We couldn’t go to [the neighbouring village of] Palamas or to Karditsa,” Goulianou told Al Jazeera.
“We received messages to stay where we were. We were stranded for two days on the first storey of a half-built house, above the water. We had water to drink but no food other than a couple of snacks we grabbed from the house. There were sick people, elderly people, children. There was a bedridden man. The helicopters were operating but they couldn’t drop us a basket because we had a tile roof, not a flat one.”
Helicopters have rescued 774 of the 4,500 people taken to safety, said a government spokesman on Monday. The rest were saved by boat.
Goulianou’s neighbour, farmer Vasilis Kyritsis, lost his home, a 1950s construction made of mud and stone, now returned to the elements, but he saved his animals.
“I opened the sheep pen to let the animals out to save themselves. They climbed up a staircase to an upper storey,” he said.
Froso Koulpa also lost her home in Marathea. “All my childhood memories turned to rubble in seconds. The house where I grew up, it’s all gone,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Just when I went back to pick up my things to leave for Athens – at that moment it was collapsing, as though it had waited to say goodbye.”
The sorrows of loss were metastasising to anger against authority. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Sunday sought to assuage such anger with a package of emergency measures.
The government will replace household appliances and farm equipment, help repair homes and compensate for losses of livestock. Tax obligations are suspended for six months in stricken areas.
But there is a growing sense among Greeks that their state is failing, and after-the-fact measures, however generous, do not make up for lack of forethought, honest governance and competence.
When dozens of people were killed in a head-on train collision last February, many people asked why up-to-date signalling and emergency braking systems a previous government commissioned in 2018 still hadn’t been installed. The European Commission recently released a damning report on that failure.
When Europe’s biggest-recorded wildfire ravaged northern Greece in August, people again asked why more fire prevention wasn’t carried out. And now they are asking why flood prevention works and timely evacuations didn’t happen.
It is not just the loss of life, now at 15 and counting; it’s the loss of daily life that leaves people shocked.
In the town of Volos, a torrent coming off Mount Pelion swallowed up the road connection to dozens of villages on the mountain, along with gas, telephone and electricity utilities. It’s unclear when these can be restored.
Volos itself was left without drinking water, and residents queued up beside 18-wheelers for handouts of six-packs.
Road and rail connections between the north and south of the country were severed for days during the floods. The scale of disruption scientists attribute to climate change is amplifying whatever administrative flaws Greece has.
Mitsotakis has ruled for four years and won a second term in June – not long enough to be responsible for all the nation’s shortcomings, but long enough to have to answer for why, despite announcing he would usher in European standards of governance, he didn’t reverse them.
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