Putting right everything that went wrong in Mati

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis

When dozens of people burn to death a few metres from the sea, less than an hour’s drive from the centre of Athens, you have to accept that everything that could go wrong did so. All you can do is acknowledge the errors, work relentlessly to correct them and do so while displaying the seriousness that is worthy of the lives of those 80+ people who perished in Mati.

Sadly, there seems to be very little of this going on in Greece at the moment. As with previous disasters with a high human toll, a blame game is unfolding against a backdrop of convoluted procedures and intertwined obligations whose only purpose is to ensure that nobody has responsibility for anything.

What happened in Mati, northeast of Athens, was the result of a fatal combination of factors: Gale-force winds, a fire very close to an inhabited area at the same time as other major blazes around Athens, many illegally built homes, narrow roads, unprepared authorities and a lack of coordination.

As a result, the strongest summer wind in eight years blew from the west, pushing the fire through homes in Mati at a blistering pace and sending residents who had apparently not officially been told to evacuate their homes fleeing in all directions. Amid this panic, four-lane Marathonos Avenue, seen as a guaranteed fire break, was closed (just for a few minutes, according to the police) and many cars ended up on the seafront side of the road. The blaze, though, tore across the road, long seen as a reliable fire break, and through anything it found on the other side, where most of the victims died. All this is said to have taken around 90 minutes.

One of the initial observations that can be drawn from this is that firefighters had to combat a blaze under circumstances which meant they were never likely to delay or stop its advance. This prompts the question of whether more could have been done in terms of prevention measures (clearing dead wood and debris, creating fire breaks, knocking down illegal buildings, etc) to give residents a better chance of getting out safely.

Additionally, the extreme circumstances demanded a swift and coherent evacuation plan, perhaps based on some kind of early warning system. This seems to have been completely absent, likely contributing to the high death toll.

Finally, there is the issue of whether authorities could have acted quicker to rescue people from beaches and the sea. Some survivors claim it took several hours for them to be hauled to safety by the coast guard, navy or fishermen.

Each of these initial conclusions suggests that more could have been done by authorities to prevent the loss of life, or at least minimise the death toll. It does not necessarily mean that there was gross negligence or that someone is criminally liable but it does mean that the system as whole was found wanting when tested in such a severe way.

The results of the fire in Mati also point to longstanding deficiencies that contributed to the disaster. These include illegal construction (later legalised) in or next to forested areas, poor infrastructure, the planting of highly flammable trees and an absence of clear escape routes.

If Greece wants to learn from the terrible experience at Mati, it can do so by investigating what happened over a period of a few hours on Monday but it will also have to look at what occurred in the area over previous decades.

It was encouraging to hear New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis indicate he is prepared to accept that responding to Monday’s disaster requires a broad approach. “The Greek state has been unable over time to effectively protect the lives and possessions of its citizens,” he said as he suggested that the country’s politicians should avoid confrontation.

This was a remarkably mature response for the standard of Greek politics, which made the way in which the government reacted to the situation even more perplexing. Rather than seek to reassure citizens that it was at least in control of the relief effort, the coalition picked a fight with Skai TV and radio (ending up in SYRIZA and Independent Greeks (ANEL) announcing a boycott of the media outlet), argued with residents during a visit to Mati, held a disorganised news conference three days after the fire (where government officials, police and fire chiefs argued that they dealt with the situation as best they could) and has yet to produce a list of all those thought to be missing.

The only thing the coalition needed to do was show contrition, convince those affected that they will be supported and oversee an effort to learn from the mistakes that were made. It has done none of this and, instead, hoped that the swift announcement of aid for the survivors to rebuild their lives (a similar formula to the one followed by the New Democracy government in 2007 after devastating wildfires) would suffice. Unbelievably, the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition has managed to make a situation involving the deaths of more than 80 people even worse.

It would be advisable for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to stop his government from digging a deeper hole for itself and to accept that it must accept at least part of the responsibility for the failures that contributed to the Mati disaster. If the parties that governed the country previously also acknowledge that they fuelled the fire through their actions over many years, then they can all start working together on a common strategy to improve Greece’s response to such crises.

Example

The ever more visible signs of climate change and the fact that there are numerous settlements like Mati dotted around the country means that Monday’s developments have to spur authorities into action before Greece witnesses similar events. This will also require a more cultivated discussion than in the past about how to allocate resources for prevention and firefighting.

Until now, this issue has either been seen through the prism of political favours (handing out jobs to friends and family) or as an easy source for spending cuts, which have gradually whittled down the fire brigade’s capability. Now that Greece is emerging from its third programme, there is an opportunity to have a calmer discussion about what the country expects from its public services and what this will cost.

The dedication shown by firefighters, trying to put out blazes by air or on the ground, and doctors and nurses who stayed on duty for many hours to deal with the victims are a reminder that many civil servants, often seen as an unnecessary drain on resources during the crisis, provide vital services. It will take some brave and progressive decision making to ensure that such departments are adequately staffed, properly rewarded and sufficiently supported. All this needs to happen in the interest of the whole country, rather than a particular party.

Similarly, Greece can draw strength from the way that society reacted following the catastrophe in Mati. Fishermen rescued survivors, volunteers helped provide care and donors gave blood in their hundreds, while people donated emergency items and offered temporary accommodation in their homes.

The destruction wreaked by the fires came at a moment that Greece was being encouraged to look outward and forward after years of crisis, criticism, infighting and introspection. There is a danger that Greeks will instead look inward and backward, believing that their country is destined to repeat its mistakes with a worse outcome each time.

However, the response by some public servants and citizens after the disaster provide hope that the pattern does not have to be repeated, that dedication and selflessness are not in short supply. The best tribute that could be paid to those who lost their lives is for this example to be followed by Greece’s decision makers.

*You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis

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