Oksana Shved , Ukrainian Red Cross
Ukrainians are tallying the costs after weeks of savage cold took the lives of almost 900 people and left another 5,500 hospitalised with frostbite and hypothermia.
To support the Ukrainian Red Cross Society's (URCS) emergency assistance to the most vulnerable over the next two months, the Federation released more than 80,000 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund. This help is timely since a spell of extremely cold weather in January destroyed about 730,000 hectares or 12% of Ukrainian winter grain crops.
Red Cross teams in eight regions continue working round-the-clock to bring warmth back to hundreds of lonely elderly people, street children and homeless people. Over the past few weeks the Ukrainian Red Cross provided more than 10,000 blankets, 1,600 heaters, 3,000 hygiene article kits, more than 4,000 kilos of clothes and prepared 5,000 food parcels for those in need.
According to official data, until recently, some 20,000 people remained shivering in unheated apartments in the city of Alchevsk in Eastern Ukraine.
The Alchevsk's heating system broke down on January 22 when temperatures plunged to a record low of -38=B0C. Some of the pipes used to pump hot water from a central power plant froze and fractured, cutting off many homes, schools and kindergartens from their source of heating. Frozen apartments with ice flowing out of the balcony and at the walls are a common picture there.
"At night, people were scared that they would die from the cold," said Olga Kudaeva, Head of the Lugansk oblast Red Cross branch.
"People felt hopeless, shuddering in their homes, bundled in as many clothes as they could manage. One could read despair in their eyes and waning strength to fight this cold."
Meanwhile, URCS activities were not limited to the provision of warm clothes, food and hygiene articles. Six mobile groups monitored the flats of older people living alone, pensioners and people with special needs.
"Sometimes Red Cross staff, accompanied by police, had to break down entrance doors when there was no response from old people inside," recalls Olga.
"Just imagine helpless men and women wearing several layers of clothing, even to bed, in order to maximize their body warmth! Furthermore, because of gas shortages and problems with electricity, their daily food allowance was restricted to canned goods and bread".
Ukrainian Red Cross tents and hot-meal points were the last resort for hundreds of the most vulnerable in the regions of Lviv, Lugansk, Kyiv, Kharkov, Zaporizhzhya and Kirovograd. Many people came to them for hot water, but mostly for hot tea or food. Sometimes youngsters or street children dropped in to warm up after being outdoors in these extreme weather conditions. Local homeless were the most frequent visitors, often in need of first aid.
This winter raised the importance of the need for a strong disaster management programme and strengthened links with the Emergency Centres and other relevant authorities.
The Ukrainian Red Cross recognises the importance of disaster preparedness and will be a key partner in expanding the region's disaster preparedness plans. Their efforts will focus on working with the Red Cross national societies in neighbouring countries to increase common capacity to respond to disasters more quickly and effectively.