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‘The earth is sick’: Storm Daniel has passed, but Greeks fear its deathly legacy

Four years ago, Poppy Georgiou returned to the village in north-east Pelion where she grew up in the hope of creating a better life among the apple and chestnut orchards. She had studied in Thessaloniki, but it had been difficult to get by, and she decided to move back to Pouri to work alongside her family and community on the mountain in Thessaly that looms above the Aegean.

But that future, along with many others, is in jeopardy. The 28-year-old, who cultivates apples, chestnuts, cherries and olives across 50 acres of land with her husband and parents, found hope hard to find after the Thessaly was battered by Storm Daniel at the beginning of the month, devastating the agricultural region that is one of Greece’s “breadbaskets”.

Experts have warned that the storm, which proceeded to claim thousands of lives in Libya, will have lasting consequences. Thessaly is the source of a quarter of Greece’s agricultural production, and after Storm Daniel, a leading disaster management expert told Greek state television that it would take at least five years for the plain to become fertile again. Worries of shortages and price hikes were brewing.

And that was before a second weather event, Storm Elias, battered large parts of central Greece on Wednesday, cutting power and flooding homes. The government has declared that adapting to climate crisis has become a national priority.

“It’s been chaos,” Georgiou said after the torrential rain lashed the region once more. On Wednesday night, the European Severe Weather Database (ESWD) said a months’ worth of rain had fallen within the previous 24 hours.

Flood waters and mud cover the plain in the town of Palamas, Thessaly region. Photograph: Vaggelis Kousioras/AP

Even before Storm Elias gathered force, the future looked dark for Thessaly’s agricultural communities. “I’m not optimistic, because the damage is enormous – it will be difficult to get compensation on this scale,” Georgiou said. “But if we don’t get it, we’ll be forced to leave our homes.

“We’re all battling together for compensation. Around here, everyone makes a living through agriculture – it’s the main source of work.”

Georgiou said her cousin lost 30 olive trees, emphasising that she was using the word in the literal sense: they were swept away entirely, probably into the sea.

The harvest had not yet begun when Storm Daniel hit, and before Storm Elias arrived this week, they had gathered just a fraction of the thousands of apple crates they normally sold. “So much of the produce has been lost,” she said. Chestnuts had not yet been harvested. “It’s a very upsetting situation. In the region, we’ll have money problems – that’s the only sure thing.”

Branches have been broken and produce battered in Pouri
Branches have been broken and produce battered in Pouri. Photograph: Poppy Georgiou/Guardian Community

Nearly a month on from Storm Daniel, the situation remains dire for people in the village. The bridge that connects Pouri to the village of Zagora is impassable by car, meaning local children cannot attend school there because of the danger. When emergency supplies, including bottled water, have been delivered, villagers have had to cross on foot. Water remains unsafe in swathes of Thessaly; after the storm, gastroenteritis cases have plagued the area.

Georgiou and others in the village have been ferrying the produce they have been able to harvest to their cooperative in Zagora. With the bridge still in disrepair, she says of traversing an alternative road that feels unsafe: “Every time we cross, it feels like we are playing with our lives. But what else can we do?”

To the west in Karditsa, a beekeeper, Thomas Gkotzas, had been married two days when Storm Daniel hit. The celebratory atmosphere did not last long. “The day after the wedding, I was incredibly anxious, pacing.” He was right to worry.

Thomas Gkotzas
Thomas Gkotzas: ‘People are talking about going hungry.’ Photograph: Thomas Gkotzas/Guardian Community

When the storm unleashed a year’s worth of rain on Thessaly in 48 hours, Gkotzas lost 300 beehives. In the week after the first cataclysm, he found a hive that had been carried 7km (4.3 miles) away. “I believe the other hives will be in the sea.” Other hives were filled with dead bees, their honey mixed with mud.

Like Georgiou, Gkotzas, 32, returned to work alongside his family in Karditsa in recent years after eight years of living in the UK. The family has been producing honey for generations, and Gkotzas expanded the business, taking their numbers to 750. Things seemed to be going well, and the family had been exporting their organic honey to the UK. “Unfortunately, this will take us back years,” Gkotzas said.

Mosquitoes swarm day and night. “The smell is horrible – you need to wear a mask,” he said. It is estimated that more than 85,000 animals have drowned, creating a risk of disease. “In these kinds of disasters, people around here just try to help each another.”

The devastation wreaked on the surrounding land means Gkotzas will need to move his bees in the coming months. “Thessaly has been set back years. People are talking about going hungry. In this soil, I don’t think you will be able to grow anything properly for three to four years. I’ve found dead fish in the soil. The earth is sick.”

Gkotzas projects that his output will be halved next year. “We’re still picking up the pieces. It will take years to increase the populations, but we will build them up again.”

More than 85,000 animals have drowned
More than 85,000 animals are thought to have drowned. Photograph: Thomas Gkotzas/Guardian Community

In Platikampos, Larissa prefecture, the arable farmer Thanasis Tzikoulis, 40, had not yet managed to appraise the full extent of the damage before Storm Elias hit, but he believed he lost about 70% of his cotton crop and at least half of his corn.Tzikoulis, who also grows wheat among other crops across 300 acres and sells his produce to local and multinational manufacturers, said the state of farming looked bleak.

The devastation will have knock-on effects across the whole of Greece, with shortages and price rises expected in a country already deeply affected by the cost of living crisis.

“The catastrophe is huge – I was lucky to only suffer the damage I did, others have it even worse. It will be a problem for manufacturers, and consumers will see a rise in prices. There’ll be a serious shortage of animal feed too. This time of year, contracts are being signed for produce and wholesale prices are likely to soar. I expect that from this year, we’ll see a significant rise in the price of products like feta,” Tzikoulis said.

Like the others, Tzikoulis did not have much hope of being lifted out of trouble by government assistance. People in some parts of the region remained economically affected by the Medicane Ianos storm in 2020, he said.

“One bad harvest makes the next difficult, even in ‘normal’ circumstances” he said. “But right now, the word ‘normal’ is no longer in our vocabulary.”

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