ALERT: Widespread evacuations ordered due to landslide danger as storm approaches

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(Editor’s note: This story will be continuously updated.)

All buildings in Nybyen and near Svalbard Church and the old bakery, as well as many homes between Vei 222 to 228 are being evacuated due to possible landslide danger caused by intense rain, The Governor of Svalbard announced late Monday morning. Those forced to leave their homes are being asked to find their own alternate housing if possible.

“This is a type of extreme weather we are not accustomed to in Svalbard and we are therefore unsure how this will turn out in Longyearbyen,” a statement from the governor’s office notes.

Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen said he believes the evacuations will be “a short-term condition.”

“If the weather forecast is correct it will be for one night,” he said.

A storm is expected to bring 30 to 50 millimeters of rain to Longyearbyen and up to 100 millimeters of precipiation in some surrounding coastal mountains during a 24-hour period beginning at about 3 p.m. Monday, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. Winds in exposed coastal areas are forecast to reach speeds of more than 100 kilometers per hour.

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A map shows areas of Longyearbyen evacuated early Monday afternoon due to landslide threats posed by a heavy rainstorm. Courtesy of Longyearbyen Lokalstyre.

“We are asking people not to move in the terrain,” said Gov. Kjerstin Askholt in a preapared statement. “Loose objects should be secured.”

Evacuations must be completed by 3 p.m. Residents must then register at Kulturhuset.

The specific apartments being evacuated between Vei 222 and 228 are:
222.3 a, 222.5, 222.7, 222.9, 222.11, 222.13, 222.15, 222.17
224.7, 224.8, 224.10, 224.12
226.10, 226.12, 226.31, 226,33, 226.35, 226,37
228.6, 228.8, 228.10, 228.12, 228.14, 228.16

The road to Nybyen will be blocked at Longyearbyen School and at the crossing road of the old museum. That means Huset and the surrounding buildings will be closed as well as the larger residential and lodging area.

In addition, the road to Bjoerndalen is being closed from closed at the barbecue area. Robert Johansen, who owns a cabin in the area, said a police officer from the governor’s office knocked on the cabin door and told him he had two hours to leave.

“I took some food,” he said. “I have a place in town so it’s not a problem.”

Johansen said his cabin isn’t at risk from landslides, but the situation caused by record rainfall the past several weeks is an unprecedented experience.

“I’ve been here since 1982 and I’ve never seen this happen,” he said.

The governor subsequently decided to close the road to Mine 7 at Isdammen to outbound traffic until noon Tuesday.

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A temporary gate blocking access to several apartment buildings on Vei 222 is put up by LNS Spitsbgergen workers after a 3 p.m. evacuation deadline passes. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

City employees at Kulturhuset said a limited number of residences will be available to those forced to leave their homes, but only for one night. Numerous residents are offering places to stay on a community Facebook page.

Store Norske Administrative Director Wenche Ravlo, who was among those forced to evacuate their homes, said she is staying with a colleague and “we are urging all of our employees to do the same.” She said about 50 residences the company owns were evacuated, including 40 occupied by company employees and their families.

Although Ravlo and others in the homes were also forced out after the avalanche last Dec. 19 that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people in the area, she said she isn’t thinking about moving to a safer place yet.

“We’ll see what the NVE report says,” she said, referring to an analysis by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate assessing what structures in Longyearbyen are at risk of being hit by avalanches expected to be released in the near future.

As for being forced out of her home twice in less than a year, “it’s a hassle, but I’m not stressed. It’s a part of life.”

Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, one of community’s leaders and counselors when the avalanche hit, found himself among the displaced during this storm.

“It hits you somehow when you get the message you have to go out from your home in two hours,” he said. “For me it’s kind of an experience to be in the same boat as the other people. But it’s good (officials) are taking it seriously.”

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The road to Nybyen is blocked at Longyearbyen School. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Helgesen said the church is on the edge of a mountainside area considered a landslide risk, but there could be damage to the church and his adajcent residence from debris is a slide occurs nearby. He said the area most at-risk is Longyearbyen Cemetery, just a few meters where a large landslide occurred during a heavy rainstorm in mid-October.

“That will hit a lot of feelings,” he said.

Also among the evacuaees are 86 students at The University Centre in Svalbard living in dorms in Nybyen. University officials working with the  Arctic Student Welfare Organization sent two busses carrying the students to the dorms, giving them an hour to collect possessions before housing them at the new student dorms and guest house near the university.

“The safety of our students is paramount and fortunately we have other housing facilities to offer those students affected by this evacuation order from the Governor of Svalbard,” UNIS Director Harald Ellingsen said in a prepared statement.

UNIS has also stopped all fieldwork Monday and Tuesday due to the weather.

“We will take every precaution to ensure the safety of our staff and students, and have therefore stopped all field activity as long as the weather determines,” said Fred Skancke Hansen, director of HSE and Infrastructure at UNIS, in the same press release.

 

 

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