AVALANCHE UPDATE: Governor recommends 13 residential buildings near hillside be abandoned long-term or permanently


The long-term or permanent evacuation of 13 residential buildings closest to the mountain where two devastating avalanches have occurred in the past 14 months was recommended Wednesday by The Governor of Svalbard. The decision is for practical purposes effective immediately since the buildings were already evacuated after a landslide in the area Tuesday.

Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said “we started this discussion” today based on assessments today and the past few months by avalanche experts with the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE). Residents of many evacuated buildings further downhill were allowed to return home Wednesday night after today’s assessment, but even though experts said the still-evacuated areas appear safe she stuck by her drastic decision.

“The situation was defined as safe before the avalanche came (Tuesday),” she said. “That means you can never be 100 percent sure.”

Askholt said she plans to discuss her recommendation with property owners Friday to work out details of the relocation and residents will be allowed in to pack belongings at an undetermined time.

“We will organize so people can go in and pick out things for now and then later go back and pick out all things,” she said.

NRK, which first reported the recommendation, stated Askholt was seeking a permanent abandonment of the buildings.

“In addition to the notification system we have today, we want to secure the settlement further,” she told the news network. “We think that the top buildings can be used as a hedge against possible new landslides.”

But in an interview after a public meeting Wednesday night when she announced her recommendation, she emphasized the possibility of vacating the buildings until a long-term solution such as protective barriers are installed on the mountainside.

“It’s not an easy decision, but for me the most important thing is to get security as high as possible until a more certain situation is established,” she said.

Among those suddenly looking for a new place to live is Eva Grøndal, who was in one of the 11 homes destroyed by an avalanche on Dec. 19, 2015, on the street adjacent to Tuesday’s snowslide.

“It’s hard to think,” she said. “I think that this has not sunk in yet. I was so surprised. I’m so confused at the moment wondering where I will go.”

NVE conducted an avalanche risk assessment of following the avalanche in December of 2015. The report released last December declared 34 buildings, including the 13 recommended for abandonment, are in “red zones” at risk of being hit by an avalanche every 100 years. Most of the other “red zone” structures are in Nybyen and the majority of those are dorms for students at The University Centre in Svalbard, which has stated it intends to relocate the students to new dorms adjacent to campus.

NVE submitted a subsequent report to the Longyearbyen Community Council in January estimating it would cost 79 million to 180 million kroner to installing protective barriers, depending on the extent and level of protection. Protecting the area with the buildings the governor wants abandoned would cost 36 million to 44 million kroner.

Numerous local politicians, business leaders and residents have stated they would protection measures are preferable to a mass relocation of people. There was also general agreement any permanent solution could be practically enacted immediately.

“In the short term, an avalanche warning system is now implemented, ensuring that people living in landslide-prone areas can feel safe” said Knut Aune Hoseth, acting regional chief of NVE’s northern division, said in a prepared statement at the time risk assessment report was released.

But that thinking was shaken up by an avalanche Tuesday that destroyed two apartment buildings on the adjacent street to the December 2015 snowslide. Officials decided a few hours before the avalanche not to evacuate residences, based on NVE’s assessment there wasn’t enough snow for a slide to reach structures.