On November 19th the beautiful High Tatra Mountains in Slovakia experienced their greatest natural disaster in the last 100 years. Wind-speeds of more than 170 km per hour swept away almost half of the coniferous forest. The scenery in the Slovak National Park changed drastically for the next 50 - 70 years and the damage is immeasurable. Experts estimate the financial costs of the disaster at billions of Slovak crowns.
I am standing in the woods of Dolny Smokovec. From this spot, two weeks ago I wouldn't have been able to see anything except dense forest. Now, after the great storm, which broke and uprooted trees in a domino effect, I can clearly see the town of Poprad and houses up in Horny Smokovec, as well as the buildings of the Srobar Institute, hidden in among the fallen trees. This institute for child tuberculosis and respiratory illnesses was one of the buildings most seriously damaged on November 19th.
As we are entering the institute all I can hear are cracking branches as civilians and soldiers are burning the fallen branches. Wood piles are lying beside the road. It's clear it took a lot of effort to make the place accessible. Miroslav Skvarek, deputy director at the Srobar Insitute says that a week after the storm, a great deal of work has been done:
"The rooftops of the institute are covered and should last until spring. Our employees have been helping us the whole week and now even the army is working on our campus. There were 22 soldiers working on the area."
The institute stands right in the middle of the damaged area. The storm took all the roofs off the sanatorium buildings and, worse still, destroyed all the beautiful green park area so necessary for healing respiratory problems. On Friday the children were in the middle of their usual afternoon routine. But it was not an ordinary day. Miroslav Skvarek remembers Friday November 19th this way...
"It was in a way hectic and terrible. I was caught in the storm on the way from work. Luckily I was able to come back to the institute, and maybe it is good that I was here then. What happened here in the course of approximately two and a half hours. The whole institute campus was destroyed and now it really looks like the surface of the moon ... I can't even describe it. We've never seen anything like it and hopefully we won't ever have to again."
Because the storm and branches from trees were smashing windows of the buildings employees of the institute started evacuating children into the basement where they stayed all night.
"Some of the children were scared at first, but as soon as they got down to the basement they turned the whole situation into great fun. The kids that are here now asked us whether there will be something similar coming soon. They are looking forward to it. One of them even said - Well we had a storm, now all we need is a flood in here, and we really will have experienced everything."
Rachel, Ivana and Gabriel were some of the courageous children that witnessed the event with their own eyes.
"It was terrible, everything was breaking ... we were really afraid. The area around, it doesn't look nice here anymore."
"At first I was looking out of the window and saw the trees fall down. Then we had to go down to the basement and there we slept. It looks terrible here now. The next day my mom said that she could hardly recognize it here."
"My parents came here the next day. I was very afraid, all of us were."
The resilience of the people here is immense, and cooperation with the crisis team and the Tatra National Park administration has been excellent, says Miroslav Skvarek, deputy director at the institute. Aid also came from the state. 350 soldiers were employed in the rescue works in the High Tatras. The soldiers now helping to clear the surroundings of the Srobar Institute came to the Tatras voluntarily, says their captain.
"I was here last in September, and it was beautiful and now... Oh my God, it was something terrible. But now we are here to help remove the wood."
The Srobar Institute is a perfect example of the atmosphere in the High Tatras. People may mourn over their great loss - after all 24 thousand hectares of forest were destroyed and it will take 50-70 years for them to grow back. But life goes on and instead of just lamenting they are working hard to make their mountains as beautiful as ever. The same goes for the children at the Srobar Institute. Having experienced such a damaging storm perhaps they will have extra strength to fight their respiratory problems.
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