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Unfiled February 10, 2006
It's a cold, wet and slippery world
By Kirill Pankratov Browse author

On January 28 the roof of a big exhibition hall collapsed in the center of Katowice, a large Polish city. There were almost 500 people inside. Sixty-seven of them died, another 140 were injured. There was reportedly too much snow on the roof. This was the largest civil engineering disaster in Poland in decades - in fact as far as anyone could remember. The hall in Katowice wasn't a leftover from bad old communist times. Instead, it was a very recent construction, from the late 90's. Most Western news reports were in no hurry to emphasize this fact. Huh, snow on the roof in January in the North-Eastern Europe - what a surprise! Surely nobody expected this before. Why can't a design that would be just fine in Southern California (at least before a mudslide would carry it away) be just as good on Baltic shores? Isn't it a globalized world now - same design, same shapes, same logos - all over the five continents?

This roof collapse was the biggest, but not the only one in Europe this winter. Fifteen people died on 2 January when the roof of an ice rink collapsed in the southern German town of Bad Reichenhall amid heavy snow. In the Czech Republic a supermarket's roof gave way, and only by chance was nobody killed. Earlier, in December, 14 people, ten of them children, were killed when a roof collapsed at a swimming pool in the Urals region of Russia. Again, the swimming pool was a relatively recent construction - barely 10 years old. The roof was also heavy with snow.

This wasn't the only swimming pool disaster in Russia in recent years. Two years ago, on February 14, 2004, 26 visitors to a big new water park in Moscow, "Transvaal," died when its roof collapsed, raining down an avalanche of broken glass on pool swimmers. A company Inteko, that belonged to the wife of Moscow mayor Luzhkov, reportedly owned the water park in a murky business scheme. The architects who planned the water park hadn't admitted faulty work, and blamed terrorist act - an explosion which broke one of the main column of the building's perimeter. An investigation didn't find any signs of terrorism, but that's beside the point. What kind of architectural design is it, when a failure of a single column - out of nearly 20 - brings a chain reaction that sends the whole thing to the ground?

Most of these disasters happened to new, fancy-looking constructions that mushroomed all over the Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union recently. I remember a page from the Forbes magazine a few years ago with an article on Poland. Naturally it droned on about how wonderful things were now, after the end of the communist rule. To illustrate its point, there was a large picture showing a red Coca Cola billboard towering over a grey khrushchevka-type apartment house. And what a monstrosity it was! The huge, garish billboard covered half the sky, with sly curly letters, and a tilted bottle grinning menacingly like a new Orwellian Big Brother. The fact is, those few remaining neon signs which are still left on some buildings from the previous era - saying things like "Glory to workers - builders of communism!" - now seem relatively discrete and humble by comparison. The Coca Cola billboard, despite its hugeness, also had an air of impermanence and flimsiness about it - like melted watches on paintings by Salvador Dali.

This winter snowstorms and Arctic weather engulfed both Russia and Western Europe. Heavy snow brought to a halt traffic and normal city life in France, Italy, England, Germany. There wasn't a truly enormous amount of snow - in fact most Russians would view it as only slightly heavier than average winter snowfall. But the infrastructure was simply unable to handle the barely-abnormal weather.

Nor was it the coldest winter on record. I remember the winter of 78-79 from my childhood in Samara, south-east of Moscow, when the temperature stayed well below -30 degrees centigrade for more than a month. It was tough, but there were few major breakdowns. Stores and factories remained open all the time. Nobody used their own cars (and there few of them back then), but public transportation worked normally. A block of apartment houses at the edge of the city had pipes frozen and ruptured, but it was repaired in three days.

This time there was huge number of failures, especially in Ukraine. An entire industrial town, Alchevsk, with a population of about 150.000, was left without any heat at all due to major ruptures in centralized heating system in late January. Some 600 apartment houses are left standing without heat even today. President Yushchenko and other officials visited the town, partly due to the upcoming elections, promising help and efficiency, very little of which has been seen thus far from his administration.

The town is almost empty now. The population has since scattered to other places, with most of the students and children evacuated to the Crimea. The town's infrastructure will require many months to repair.

If this was in Russia, the town would have plenty of visits from Western correspondents, with TV footage of every desolation on a main street, of icicles in people's living rooms and cars buried under mounds of snow, preaching about "total failure of Putin's authoritarian regime." But since Ukraine's government is considered more loyal to the West, the media barely noticed major disasters in scores of small and large towns.

Alchevsk was far from alone. My wife called her relatives in Kiev - they were freezing, facing temperatures of about 8 degrees Celsius in their apartment, and had to get help from other relatives. Major heating disruptions plagued many small towns and whole districts of large cities. And all this while Ukraine was stealing plenty of Russian gas in transit to Europe, so that the Central and Southern Europe experienced a significant shortage. At least this time Ukraine admitted it, and promised to pay for it later. We'll see about that...

In America last year the weather brought a different kind of surprise. There were more hurricanes than anyone could remember. New Orleans was flooded. Twice. Both times the eye of the storm missed the city itself, but the pathetic, rundown infrastructure failed completely, rendering large parts of New Orleans uninhabitable for years, if not forever. In other places the wind destroyed mansions and large homes, leaving only their foundations. Many Russians, when first visiting the US, are shocked by the fragility of the typical American home. They are big, spacious, and look wealthy and cozy at the same time. Until you try to hammer a nail into the wall to hang a lamp or a picture. That's what makes most Russians completely bewildered. "You're telling me people actually live in these cardboard boxes???"

Those ugly khrushchevki back home suddenly seem like real houses - they are made with stone blocks at least, not wobbly plywood. The energy efficiency of American homes is a joke as well. In New England, where winters can be harsh and snowy, plenty of homes still have only one layer of glass in some windows - unthinkable in Russia. A lot of windows and sidings develop cracks and gaps after a few years, letting out huge amount of heat. In fact New England this winter has to rely on Hugo Chavez's generosity to subsidize heating oil for the poor - a big propaganda coup for "Bolivarian revolutionaries," and an embarrassment for the Bushies.

As a rule it is shittiness, and a sense of flight and flimsy, that characterizes most of the recently-constructed buildings everywhere. There were plenty of large accidents earlier in 20th century - from the Hindenburg to Halifax, from Chernobyl to Bhopal. But those were related to development and trials of very complex, dangerous industrial technologies. The recent disasters, in contrast, are trivial in their causes - due to thin walls, patchy roofs, shoddy levies. All of them were easily preventable if only builders weren't trying to cut corners and save a few bucks of profit for the sake of "efficiency."

Scientists say the world is growing warmer. Or colder. Or warmer and colder at the same time. The 2004 blockbuster The Day after Tomorrow played a scary scenario that warmer ocean water in mid-latitudes shuts down the convective circulation in the North Atlantic, which brings a flood of cold water from the polar region, and thus tsunamis washing out New York, and eventually a new Ice Age.

This was a pretty ridiculous premise, of course. It is possible in principle to shut down the convective ("thermohaline") circulation in the North Atlantic, but the resulting climate shift will be felt only after a few centuries. The warming of ocean upper layers and the rise in oceanic surface height seems to have much more evidence, and will undoubtedly bring more super-hurricanes and coastal flooding in years to come.

The earth's climate has shifted many times in history in one direction or another. These shifts - as well as natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, volcanoes, prolonged dry spells - didn't by themselves end empires and civilizations. Rather, sloppiness, and the inability to rise above trivial penny-pinching and short-term thinking -these were the true causes of epic breakdowns of civilized life, the last of which we probably haven't seen yet.

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