AVALANCHE UPDATE: Community meeting Tuesday; Queen Sonja and justice minister to visit Thursday-Friday

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Queen Sonja and Norwegian Minister of Justice and Public Security Anders Anundsen are scheduled to visit Longyearbyen Thursday and Friday to meet with local leaders, rescue officials and volunteers, and those suffering the loss of homes and loved ones in the Dec. 19 avalanche.

“We considered traveling up before Christmas, but chose not to interfere with the rescue crews and the safety work that was going on then,” Anundsen said in a prepared statement. “I want to see with my own eyes the result of natural forces and be briefed on the work done. It made a remarkable effort in a tragic situation.”

The avalanche buried 11 homes, killed local teacher Atle Husby and two-year-old Nikoline Røkenes, has prevented 80 residents from homes still considered at risk. Local officials and avalanche experts are also making long-term plans to assess whether a large number of homes beneath the town’s eastside mountains are no longer safe to occupy.

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A weather chart shows temperatures at Svalbard Airport were the highest of any municipal area in Norway on Sunday. Map courtesy of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.

A heat wave with temperatures up to nine degrees Celsius – with Sunday’s high of 6.3 degrees on Sunday the highest of any town in Norway – and occasionally heavy rain has resulted in additional slush avalanche and flooding hazards. Temperatures dropped below freezing Monday and are expected to plummet to below minus 10 degrees by Wednesday.

But local officials and residents are facing a new series of challenges with families – some of them in avalanche-damaged homes or suffering personal trauma – returning for Monday’s start of school. Also, people living in emergency city-provided housing must find own temporary shelter by Friday.

A community meeting with updates from local leaders, avalanche experts, doctors and others is scheduled at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Kulturhuset.

Queen Sonja last visited Longyearbyen in February of 2014 for the opening of a first-ever test branch of the Tromsø-based Northern Norway Art Museum. Anundsen has made numerous trips in recent years, especially since the Store Norske crisis began in 2014, since the ministry has legal oversight of Svalbard and is largely responsible for drafting its funding in the national budget.

They are scheduled to meet with Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt, members of the Longyearbyen Community Council, Longyearbyen Hospital staff, the Longyearbyen Red Cross, the Longyearbyen Fire Department and others involved in rescue efforts. They will also meet privately at Svalbard Church with those suffering losses in the avalanche.

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