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Fierce Winter Devastates Parts Of Europe

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Parts of Europe are experiencing the fiercest winter weather in almost 30 years. More cold and snow struck over the weekend, wreaking havoc from Italy to Ukraine. Hundreds of people, many of them homeless, have died in subzero temperatures in the last week across eastern Europe. NPR's Eric Westervelt has more.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The intense cold snap in Europe, which began in late January, has shaken even the most resilient, winter-hardened residents. The cold has killed more than 50 people in Romania.

In Varasti, Romania, some 60 miles southeast of Bucharest, Catana Maria is struggling. The 62-year-old's property is buried under more than 6 feet of snow. Her neighbors have had to tunnel out of their snowed-in homes. Maria says she never experienced this much snow and bitter cold.

CATANA MARIA: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: If another snowstorm comes over the next few days, we are going to die of fear, she says, adding: Water wells are entirely covered; I can't get firewood from the shed - the snow's too deep.

Subzero cold and thick ice have halted traffic - and delivery of vital goods - on large stretches of the Danube River. The river cuts through 10 countries and is one of Europe's most important and busiest waterways. European companies complain they're losing millions of euro, and barge and boat owners are getting desperate.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW)

WESTERVELT: On a Romanian stretch of the river, workers are using chain saws to try to cut away ice around their sidelined boats. In Serbia, more snow this weekend hurt efforts to reach some 20,000 homes cut off since snow storms started in late January.

Faced with electricity shortages, Serbian authorities ordered a public holiday last Friday, and university and school closures all this week to conserve energy.

Cold-weather-related deaths have been reported in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and Italy, among others. In Hungary, the Central Bank is compressing billions of old, unusable notes of the currency - the forint - into briquettes to burn, to help heat agencies that work with handicapped children. It takes about 5 million forints to make a one-kilo briquette.

In Warsaw, Poland, 50- year-old Andrzej Sokolowski is relying on a shelter run by the Catholic Church - which serves black coffee, bread and soup.

ANDRZEJ SOKOLOWSKI: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: The soups are tasty and - above all else - hot, he says, adding: a hot meal, and something to warm us up.

In north-central Italy, snowfall and bitter cold have damaged crops, killed farm animals, and blocked delivery of produce and meat to markets. In Tuscany, at least one farm roof collapsed under heavy snow, killing 20 horses.

The hardest-hit area has been Ukraine. Authorities there say more than 130 people have died during an abnormally harsh and long spell of sub-zero temperatures. More than half of those who've died lived on the streets.

Sergei Biltekov is a day laborer in Kiev. He came to the city a few weeks ago looking for work, and has spent most of his time trying to stay warm.

SERGEI BILTEKOV: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: There isn't much work right now because it's so cold and snowy, he says. I'm hoping once it finally gets warmer, there will be more employers - and more work.

Biltekov is now staying in one of the 10 temporary heating shelters in Kiev set up by the government.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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