The Grim Reality Of Avalanches In Iceland — The Reykjavik Grapevine

The Grim Reality Of Avalanches In Iceland

Published January 15, 2020

Valur Grettisson
Photo by
GVA/Vísir.is
Magnús Einar Magnússon

When news broke out last night that an avalanche hit the small town of Flateyri in the Westfjords, Icelanders feared the worst. For some, horrible trauma came back, since the dark and nightmarish winter of 1995, when avalanches claimed, all in all, 34 lives. Luckily, no one died last night, but one teenager was saved from the cold grave of the avalanche.

To understand the proportion, imagine if 30,000 American died in an avalanche in just nine months. In two incidents. Avalanche disasters claim up to 40 lives in North America every year. Most of them are climbers, skiers and snowmobilers. None of them are sleeping in their own bed, with their children in the next room. Luckily, Icelanders haven’t had such a costly disaster since 1995. But knowing Icelandic weather, we fear that it’s only a matter of time. To understand the fear of avalanches in Iceland, there is no way avoiding thinking about these to incidents that hit the nation so hard over two decades ago – when Icelanders suffered as one.

Rescue team in Súðavík, 1995

The horrible disaster at Súðvík 1995

It was a snow-heavy night, not unlike last night, when the avalanche broke, high in the mountain of Súðavíkurfjall, that could remind one of an icy wall in the dark winter. We know now that 60 – 80,000 tonnes of snow flooded down the steep hill at a speed of 150 km/h. It was down to 65 km/h when it hit the houses and the snow spread over 200 meters.

The time was 06:25 in the morning. Everyone was sleeping when the disaster hit 25 buildings, thereof 19 homes. All in all, 26 people were sleeping in their houses. Sadly, avalanches are an efficient killer, and only 14 people were rescued, amongst them a twelve-year-old child, who the rescue teams saved miraculously, 12 hours later. But the toll was horrific. Of 14 lives claimed, eight were children. The youngest one was two years old.

Twenty years after the incident, Stöð 2 interviewed Hafsteinn Númason, a father that lived at Súðavík at the time. He lost three of his five children in the avalanche.

He was stuck in his boat just right out of Súðavík because of bad weather when the incident happened. When he finally made it to land, he found his youngest son, and a rescue team, trying to save him with CPR.

“I saw my youngest one,” Hafstein described. “They were performing CPR when I saw them. He was just lying there, in his diaper. When I arrived, the rescue team was exhausted, they were giving up on him,“ he added.

Hafsteinn told the reporter, twenty years later, after the incident, that he felt like a dust grain in the universe. “Life is hard and it takes you in different directions then you intended.”

From Flateyri 1995

Flateyri 1995

The second avalanche broke at 04:07 the 26th of October, nine months later, in the high mountains over Flateyri, an isolated small town in the Westfjords, close to Súðavík. Below, around 200 people lay in their beds, sleeping.

The avalanche broke in the mountain of Eyrarfjall, a 660-metre high mountain, looming over the town. The flood swept through the mountain pass and hit the town, destroying 17 houses completely—only 3 houses were expected to be in danger of being hit by an avalanche.

45 people found themselves buried in the snow in the middle of the night. The people of Flateyri started immediately to rescue their neighbours and friends. Because of bad weather, the first rescue team came six hours after the avalanches hit the houses—valuable time that can make a difference between life and death.

Eiríkur Finnur Greipsson and his wife, Guðlaug Auðunsdóttir, described the first impact in an interview with RÚV in 2015, twenty years after the incident. They said that they heard the drones from the avalanche and suddenly the whole roof of their house was ripped off. “We just looked up into the darkness,” they said. That was the wind, just moments before the avalanche hit the town.

Later on, the Icelandic Met Office said that this was probably the biggest avalanche that they had registered. It was on the scale of 5, which is the highest number in measuring avalanches. It was 400,000 cubic meters in size.

All in all, 20 people died; ten men, six women and four children.

From Flateyri yesterday. Tidal wave sunk most of the boats in the harbour.

The consequences

The cost of lives in such a rural and small community is absolutely devastating. Many decided to move after the disasters and later on scientists interviewed the survivors and found out that many were still struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving. The same goes for the rescue operators. In some research about the issue, the conclusion was that the psychiatric complications after the disasters took its toll. 35% of the people that lived in Súðavík had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder a year later. The number went up to 48% for the survivors in Flateyri four months after the disaster. In both towns, women suffered worse from the shock. One conclusion suggested that those that moved away from the area afterwards suffered longer.

So, where are we now?

Icelanders have built massive barriers in the most dangerous areas to steer the avalanches away from the towns. This is what saved the people of Flateyri last night. But there is still a political debate about cost.

Last year, Vísir reported that 230 homes are still in a danger zone when it comes to avalanches. To finish the job, we need 19 billion ISK. These areas are categorised as Danger Zone C. According to Vísir, the people living in these areas are ten times more likely to die in an avalanche than a car crash.

All in all, avalanches have claimed 210 lives in Iceland since 1900. And every time a story breaks out about avalanches near small towns, people living in Iceland feel that cold gust and fear the worst.

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