Shipping community steps up again in wake of Greek wildfires

Devastating wildfires during the past week are the latest in a long line of disasters of one kind and another that have plagued modern Greek history but have highlighted the conscience of the country’s maritime community in extending a helping hand to the homeland and their compatriots

07 August 2021

Prominent shipowners Panos Laskaridis and Evangelos Marinakis among the first from the industry to respond to the plight of thousands affected by fires ravaging swathes of Greece, but donations from shipping usually take into account longer-term needs, too

SHIPPING circles in Greece have been offering emergency help to thousands driven from their homes by unprecedented wildfires ravaging the country for the last week, emulating efforts that the industry has made to lend a hand when the state has been overwhelmed by past disasters.

Following days in which the nation has been appalled by the scale of destruction in several areas of Greece as well as gripped by the heroism of firefighters, many of them unpaid volunteers, the involvement of maritime people should be seen in context — but is no less vital for that.

If past efforts are anything to go by, help coming from the wider Greek shipping community, including foundations with historic maritime links, will likely include funding aimed at trying to bolster the capacity of public services to respond to future emergencies as well as offering immediate aid for today’s victims.

Just three years ago, the maritime community pitched in on an impressive scale after deadly wildfires in Attica, including the tragic blaze in the community of Mati, just outside Athens, that cost more than 100 lives.

Leading the response to the 2018 catastrophe, the Shipowners’ Social Welfare Company (or ‘Syn-Enosis’), a private entity affiliated to the Union of Greek Shipowners, channeled more than €7m towards helping fire victims but also into longer-term measures such as paying for repairs to helicopters, adding to firefighting infrastructure and reforestation.

Next year will see the opening of a new state-of-the-art training centre for the Hellenic Fire Corps on the site of a former US military base in Nea Makri, adjacent to Mati. It is being paid for with the final tranche of a €25m grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, offered in the wake of the Mati fire, that has also provided personal protective equipment for firefighters and additional training programmes.

Only in the past month, Civil Protection deputy minister Nikos Hardalias called the grant “an invaluable contribution toward substantially upgrading civil protection and firefighting services in our country”. So far as is known, the descendants of legendary shipowner Stavros Niarchos have little if any activity in shipping today but the foundation owes its existence to capital from the industry.

Although government strategies contributed to avoiding the death toll suffered in 2018, by virtually any other measure the latest fires have been worse, far worse.

Few Greeks will have been unmoved by the plight of thousands of compatriots, and of the country’s forests, as an extreme heatwave kept temperatures climbing daily above 40°C, creating conditions for huge rolling fires that in many instances could not be contained.

Several private ro-ro vessels were among the first respondents to rescue people driven to the beaches of Evia, the country’s second-largest island, by walls of flame.

Together with coast guard patrol boats, they have so far evacuated more than 2,600 people from spots around the coast as fires ravaging huge swathes of northern Evia continue into a second week.

At the start of last week, fast ferry operator Seajets chartered the 12,500 gt ro-ro ferry Olympus (IMO: 7432733) from compatriot owner Sea Speed Lines to transport free of charge 60 firefighters and 25 fire trucks to help tackle a blaze on the island of Rhodes.

“We will always be there to render assistance when it comes to the environment, emergencies, safety and urgent needs of our local Aegean communities,” said Marios Iliopoulos, head of strategic planning for the line.

As well as Blue Star Ferries, the same company has been among those offering free transportation for fire trucks and firefighters last month when a significant fire broke out on the island of Samos.

Also quick to respond to immediate needs was shipowner Evangelos Marinakis. Last Friday, through his football club Olympiacos, he organised a humanitarian convoy of two trucks and the team bus carrying 100,000 packages of bottled water, juices and biscuits for affected communities in Evia, that has continued burning this week. On Monday, it was the turn of the charred western Peloponnese prefecture of Ilia to receive 45 tonnes of similar emergency provisions.

Among the first to pledge significant financial help is shipowner Panos Laskaridis who has a track record of major public donations, including recent donations of three general support ships to the Hellenic Navy.

On Monday, the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation of which he is president announced the owner is offering €1m for victims of the fires as well as to help strengthen the Fire Corps.

Longer-term help

Already there are signs of shipowners looking to the longer term. Through the Maria Tsakos Foundation’s International Centre of Maritime Research and Tradition, Panagiotis Tsakos has pledged to fund a reforestation study for the ravaged area of Ancient Olympia in Ilia prefecture.

Olympia was a major centre of the ancient world and important national tourist attraction where the ceremonial flame is lit for the Olympic Games every four years. Simos Palios, founder of leading dry bulk company Diana Shipping, will join Captain Tsakos in paying for the study.

No doubt more contributions will roll in over the coming days and weeks as individuals, companies and industry bodies assess the best way they can help.

Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has announced a relief fund for Evia and northern Attica of €500m as the country begins to count the cost of destruction that may ultimately prove incalculable.

But with the fires coming on top of Greece’s decade-long financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic that has laid low the country’s pivotal tourism sector, many will wonder how well an already groggy state will be able to rise from the ashes of the past week if left unaided.

At such times, generosity from Greece’s wealthiest industry has often been important in helping the homeland and the current crisis is unlikely to be an exception.