Royal touched: Queen Sonja, justice minister visit avalanche zone, meet with rescuers and victims

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Queen Sonja, her eyes filled with tears after touring the 11 homes destroyed by the Dec. 19 avalanche, said the scope of the tragedy and efforts by those trying to help the victims is beyond mere words.

“What makes the strongest impression is to see this with my own eyes,” she said during a brief gathering with reporters after the Thursday afternoon tour. “This chaos. One cannot fully understand it after only having seen pictures.”

“There is much to be done and there will also be painful times moving ahead. But I think that with the unity and determination here it will go very well. And I think that unity is going to be even stronger.”

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

They met with Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt and other local officials shortly after their arrival early Thursday afternoon. That was followed by an hour-long tour of the avalanche area beneath Sukkertoppen, which ended with the delegation gathering at one of the wrecked homes with the media kept at a distance. When the queen returned with Anundsen, the emotional impact of the moment was evident.

The delegation met with members of the Longyearbyen Red Cross and other rescuers Thursday evening. On Friday, they met privately at Svalbard Church with residents who lost homes and loved ones.

An extensive rebuilding effort – almost certainly in another area – is likely to be costly and require government assistance, according to local leaders. Anundsen, during a press conference after the church visit, said he discussed the issue with local leaders and it will considered in the larger context of the government’s soon-to-be-released white paper outlining policy objectives for Svalbard. His ministry has legal oversight of Svalbard and is largely responsible for drafting its funding in the budget.