Church Fires and Dike Warnings Weather Chaos Strikes Europe Despite Mild Winter

There has been a dearth of snow so far this winter, but storms this week have created havoc across much of northern Europe. On Thursday, lightening set a Bavarian church ablaze and dike leak warnings in the Netherlands have led to the evacuation of 800 residents.

DPA

What a difference a year makes. In early 2011, Berlin was covered in snow, ski areas in the Alps were overflowing with visitors and winter sports stores could hardly keep the shelves filled.

This year? Too little snow in the Alps in December, too much snow this month, a lot of rain everywhere else and an excess of gale-force winds. It has, aside from this week's sudden dump of snow in the mountains, been the winter that never quite arrived for much of Western Europe.

Instead, much of northern Europe has been battered by the kind of storms normally seen in spring and autumn. On Thursday, a storm front swept across Germany and neighboring countries, uprooting trees, ripping shingles off of roofs and causing at least one death after a car was blown into oncoming traffic in Bavaria. In northern Germany, a driver was seriously injured when her car was blown into a tree. Flood warnings were in place across much of northern Germany.

In southern Germany, lightening struck the tower of a 15th century church, setting it ablaze. Firefighters fought the fire for hours but were hampered by high winds and snow. Ultimately, the peak of the tower collapsed into the church cemetery and nobody was injured.

Evacuations in Holland

"It would have been dramatic if the tower had fallen in the other direction," said local police chief Alfred Immerz. "It would have destroyed the nave."

Bad weather has also hit the Netherlands hard, with operations at Europe's biggest port in Rotterdam limited due to strong winds. Several ships were unable to leave or enter. In addition, police and military personnel began evacuating up to 800 people in low-lying areas of northern Holland due to concerns that a dike could break.

Authorities said that the chances of a breach were minimal, particularly after locals spent much of Thursday night piling up sandbags to strengthen the barrier. Some 85 farmers were likewise advised to leave their low-lying farms on Thursday due to concerns about a different dike, but most refused and the dike proved able to cope with the rising water behind it.

German textile retailers on Thursday complained that despite a strong start to 2011, the mild autumn and winter has hit their bottom lines hard. Winter sport shops in Germany say that December 2011 sales were down fully 28 percent against the same month in 2010.

cgh -- with wire reports

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