Sounding The Alarm: How Iceland Responds To Natural Disasters - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Sounding The Alarm: How Iceland Responds To Natural Disasters

Sounding The Alarm: How Iceland Responds To Natural Disasters

Andie Fontaine
Photos by
Julia Staples

It is common knowledge to people with even the most cursory knowledge of Iceland that we live on a very geologically active island. Earthquakes are a constant occurrence (even if most of the tremors are too small to be noticeable, let alone threatening) and volcanoes are not at all rare. The Heimaey eruption of 1973 kick-started Iceland’s rescue and evacuation framework in earnest, and today the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management oversees these kinds of operations.

These operations are coordinated through a complex network involving geologists, emergency workers, the police and rescue workers. And for good reason: the people most in danger in the event of a severe earthquake or volcanic eruption aren’t those of us living in the capital area, but rather the farmers and other rural folks out in the countryside.

In the event a giant tremor strikes, or a volcano has a major eruption, what’s the plan? How are these people alerted and ushered to safety? We compiled a few of the higher-danger areas, how many people live there, and what the evacuation plan is for each one. This is based on publicly available information on the Department’s website. We didn’t include a number of the emergency plans that Civil Protection is ready for— like accidents at sea, outbreaks of disease at Keflavík airport, and others—out of the limitations of page space, but rest assured Iceland has it under control.

Katla
What it is:
The volcano your mom warned you about. Like most volcanoes in Iceland, the danger from Katla doesn’t just come from the possibility of smoke and ash, but also from glacial flooding; in Katla’s case, it is partially capped by Mýrdalsjökull.
Who lives there?
There are about 140 people who live in the potential floodplain and this includes farms, industries, smaller workplaces, schools and residential housing.
How do they get them out?
Everyone who lives in the area is sent a text message from the police telling them to evacuate the area. Residents are asked to hang a sign, either on their front doors or in some other visible spot, indicating that they have left. Rescue workers then quickly but thoroughly comb through the area to make sure everyone has left, while other rescue workers wait outside of the floodplain to welcome the evacuees.
How long do they have to evacuate?
This depends on where they live. Those to the east or west of Katla can have up to half an hour to evacuate, but people living in Vík, a village on the south coast, will have a mere 15 minutes to pack up and clear out. For this reason, many residents in the area reportedly have a packed bag ready in case of emergency.

Eyjafjallajökull
What it is:
Iceland’s celebrity volcano, and arguably the precursor to the tourism boom. When this volcano erupted in 2010, it sent up an enormous plume of ash that blanketed the area and swept as far west as Reykjavík.
Who lives there?
Over 3,000 people live in all of Rangárvallasýsla, but it is unknown if all of these people would need to evacuate, given the sheer size of the area.
How do they get them out?
The police will call landlines with a recorded message and send text messages not only to all residents, but to all summer houses and recreation centres. Evacuees will hang a sign on their front door indicating that they have left. Rescue workers sweep the area to be sure it’s all clear and there will be evacuation centres just outside the area, mostly comprised of local schools, staffed by rescue workers ready to welcome the evacuees. Tour companies who are in the area in the event of an evacuation call must have their own evacuation plans in place
How long do they have to evacuate?
Approximately 30 minutes.

Earthquake!
What it is:
Earthquakes can happen pretty much anywhere in Iceland, but the strongest ones occur along a ridge that stretches roughly from Reykjanes to Eyjafjörður. This is effectively the seam that connects the European and North American continental plates.
Who lives there?
Damn near everybody.
How do they get them out?
Unlike volcanoes, earthquakes often give little warning of their impending arrival. A few small tremors might be followed by a major earthquake seconds later, or peter out completely. As such, the emergency response to earthquakes has more to do with responding after they’ve already struck, rather than clearing people from an area where they are about to occur. This involves the cooperation of pretty much everyone: the police, rescue workers, the fire department, the Red Cross and related parties.
How long do they have to evacuate?
See above.

Öræfajökull
What it is:
A fearsome, ice-covered volcano in southeast Iceland, just a few clicks west of Jökulsárlón.
Who lives there?
A few farms are very close by, but the evacuation area stretches from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Höfn because – you guessed it! – glacial flooding. There’s also Hótel Skaftafell, and various people wandering in the area on any given day.
How do they get them out?
Police are dispatched from Kirkjubæjarklaustur in the east, and from Höfn to the west, to assist in evacuations. Ambulances and rescue workers follow. The Red Cross and the rescue squads wait outside the evacuation area to receive evacuees.
How long do they have to evacuate?
Anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on their exact location.

Hekla
What it is:
THE GATEWAY TO HELL, according to 12th century Cistercian monks. Like Mt. Vesuvius, it’s a stratovolcano, meaning it looks like an actual volcano. Close enough to Reykjavík to make half the country a bit nervous when it erupts, which is pretty often.
Who lives there?
Apart from the nearby farms, there are also the villages of Hella and Selfoss, as well as Reykjavík not very far away.
How do they get them out?
Civil Protection alerts the police, and they send out a mass text to all people in the area via the emergency number. The police, along with rescue workers, then sweep the area to make sure everyone is out, and rescue workers wait outside the evacuation area to receive evacuees.
How long do they have to evacuate?
Depending how far away they are, it can be as little as 10 minutes and up to half an hour. If there is any danger of an ash cloud or lava flow from Hekla reaching the capital area, residents would likely be evacuated both west into Reykjanes and north into the Akranes and Borgarnes region.


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