Istanbul, Turkey – Turkish authorities in Istanbul dispatched troops to clear highways and ordered military helicopters to shuttle the sick to hospital, as the country’s largest city was blanketed in unusually heavy snow that brought transport to a nearly complete standstill.
A temporary ban on motorcycles and private vehicles came into effect on Tuesday morning following the snowfall the night before. Schools and shopping centres were also shut as the public was urged to stay home amid warnings of more freezing weather in the coming days.
“The main issue is that our citizens not go outside as much as they can in these stormy conditions,” said Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu. “We have areas where the snow has reached 80 centimetres (2.6 feet), and in most of the city the snow range has been 30 – 50 centimetres (1-1.5 feet),” Imamoglu added.
Istanbul’s major roads, including the northern highway connecting to the main international airport, as well as the E-5 highway running east-west through the city, and routes to the capital, Ankara, were closed overnight. Authorities said thousands of motorists were left stranded on highways, with snowfall quickly picking up at rush hour as commuters were returning home. Istanbul’s governor said 71 mosques had been opened to provide shelter for those stranded on roads in the city.
“We have gone through a very tough night, and unfortunately, because of heavy snow and cold weather, people were stuck on highways,” Adil Karaismailoglu, minister of transport and infrastructure, said in a news conference in Istanbul on Tuesday afternoon. Karaismailoglu said many cars had been abandoned by drivers on highways and work was being done to clear them.
The bad weather on Monday also prompted the suspension of flights out of the city’s airport, one of the world’s busiest, as authorities sought to clear runways to get hundreds of stranded flights back on schedule.
While one runway was later opened to handle flights that had been diverted because of the snowfall, Turkish Airlines said its flights would not resume until at least midnight on Tuesday.
“Relevant authorities continue to work to make our airports and transportation routes ready for our flights,” Yahya Ustun, the airline’s spokesperson, said on Twitter.
The airport, located north of Istanbul on the shores of the Black Sea, was opened in 2019 to much fanfare. Turkey hoped to make it the world’s largest in the future – able to handle more than 200 million passengers annually. Although only one terminal has been operational thus far, it handled more than 36 million passengers last year.
The snowfall on Monday night though caught the airport by surprise, quickly overwhelming runways and ground transport, leaving passengers stranded inside aeroplanes, in buses meant to connect them to gates on the tarmac, as well as inside the massive terminal building.
Thousands of travellers spent the night in the terminal, and on Tuesday, airport authorities distributed cardboard sheets and sandwiches to them.
The roof of a massive cargo terminal collapsed in the snowfall, while road access to the airport, which opened without any public transport links and relies entirely on shuttle buses and taxis, was cut off on Monday night.