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Harris heroes battle winter weather

A week of heavy snow followed by several days of storms created exceptionally difficult conditions on Harris this month, but local services battled the extreme weather to keep the island moving, ensuring that food was available, roads were cleared, and support was on hand for those with urgent needs.

The heavy snowfall, from Monday January 15, lead to extended school closures and created perfect conditions for sledging. In some areas there were deep drifts, with 15cm recorded at the Met Office’s Stornoway airport weather station, and locals reporting that this was the most snow they had ever seen on the island.

Picture: the Harris gritter team loading salt ready for their next run

While children made the most of the extra play time, slippery pavements and roads made getting out difficult for others, with vehicles coming off the road on several occasions. There were early starts, late nights, and many extra hours worked by the council’s gritting team, who were widely praised for their efforts to clear roads and reach remote places.

The Care at Home, and local Care Home teams continued to support their vulnerable clients throughout, with assistance from the Coastguard, who helped to get staff to work. “In Harris we are fortunate that our community has such good spirit and are all willing to help each other in times of need,” said a spokesperson for the Care at Home team.

“The care team all did an excellent job, maintaining provision to those who were in most need, despite the added pressure. We are hugely indebted to the Coastguard team for their speedy and efficient response to our plea for assistance, at times with little notice. Their crucial assistance of providing vehicles and personnel allowed for our staff to be escorted safely to service users.”

As well as transporting carers, the Harris Coastguard team were called on many times, including to help with patient transfers to Stornoway, and to manage a road closure following the fatal accident at Balallan on January 23.

HM Coastguard’s Area Commander Murdo Macaulay said: “We’re in a remote location and so it is really important that we work together as a local community and as an emergency service team during bad weather. Our vehicles are specially adapted for extreme weather and so we immediately stepped in to help when the snow started falling – we had doctors and nurses who couldn’t get to their patients and other emergency workers stranded as well, so we have had a very busy few days.”

With supermarket deliveries cancelled, local shops came into their own, remaining open throughout the snow and storms, and providing deliveries to those who needed them.

Writing on the Clachan (Isle of Harris Community Co-op)’s Facebook page, Manager Kenny MacLeod praised his team: “I’d like to thank our staff for battling to keep the shop running smoothly,” he said. “Some days they faced pretty sketchy road conditions just to make it into work. Our driver John only missed one house all week and on one occasion walking 1/4 of a mile in the snow to make sure folk didn't go without.”

The post also included a special mention of contractor Jonathan MacKay, who cleared the car park with his tractor, and reminded customers that local businesses are critical in emergencies. “For communities to thrive it’s important to support local businesses – if you don’t support them now, then when you really need them, they might not be there.”

The thaw came in time for schools to re-open on Friday, but it was only a temporary respite before consecutive storms Isha and Jocelyn struck and a further school closure (on Wednesday) for high winds. While Harris residents are more used to storms than snow, this battering has been particularly drawn-out, with Met Office weather warnings in place most days since the middle of the month and gusts of 78 mph recorded at Lacklee weather station during storm Isha.


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