Rant: You may want to go home – for maybe the last time ever. The Sequel (20 minutes in a freezing hell with little left to lose)
This time, almost exactly a year to the day later, there was no forewarning it might happen. Instead of two hours, I had 20 minutes. There was no calvary bringing vehicles – indeed, there were no cars at all because I had no idea where mine was.
And it wasn’t a pivotal moment on a worldwide reality TV show – or even covered by the local media. Good thing, because as the picture indicates, I look a whole lot worse for wear this year.
As I write this starting at 12:50 a.m. Wednesday, it’s been roughly five hours since I first learned the my apartment building – along with a dozen other residential buildings that are mostly apartment complexes – may be permanently vacated. The thinking is the buildings are the closest to a mountainside where two avalanches causing massive damage have occurred during the past 14 months, so our homes will serve as a snow barrier for homes further toward flat land.
Call it “Svalbard: Life off the Edge.”
Yes, I can make bad jokes about it (i.e. in this case, I have to explain to most readers the punchline refers to me and 30 others hastily abandoning Gamle Sykehuset, as seen on the BBC Earth series “Svalbard: Life on the Edge”). After being forced to quickly evacuate my home four times – twice for good – since December of 2015 due to avalanche/landslide threats my “safe space” seems to be the familiarity of my laptop writing diatribes that are legal grounds for a Breathalyser (notice how I took the time to look up the word to see if it’s a copyrighted trademark).
To quote another sequel of massively inferior quality (always the case except for “The Godfather, Part II,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”): “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m Bruce Willis. I still have hair and the hat isn’t a ploy to disguise baldness.
I’m also considerably less built than he was in his “Die Hard” days, so this is the story of a guy rushing out of a building into the freezing night in a panic carrying several bags of gear, discovering he has no idea where his car is, terrifying a random women in a parked car by pounding on the window and pleading for a ride, staggering through thick snow with my bags past a barrier to my apartment, staggering back much more clumsily through the snow a few minutes later with a few additional bags, and snapping the world’s worst selfie.
But if this is going to be a tragicomic account of The Most Bumbling Guy in Svalbard who tries to act quickly and wisely, it’s vital to emphasize the most important reason to find self-depricating humor in chaos.
In most of those four evacuation there have been true tragedies. People have died. Many have seen their homes, possessions and memories buried for good under tons of snow and debris. And while I can sit here and ponder bad movie analogies as I write this, many of those suffering so much worse also have to worry about comforting their kids in the moment and the many more in the future when the trauma is relived.
So while I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping tonight (for the third night in a row), it’s hard to stop thinking about where the people in the six apartments destroyed by Tuesday’s avalanche are right now. As a journalist I suppose I have the right – some would say the duty – to find out, but the truth is I don’t want to publicize their pain unless they want to without persuasion. I felt the same way after that 2015 avalanche and not once did I hear a reader anywhere say they wanted to read tear-jerking quotes from those who lost the most.
If you’re still reading this (I stopped a while back), here’s “The Evacuation of Mark, Part II.”
(Only a true wordsmith or someone able to use a dictionary will appreciate that title and a high percentage of similar references in news coverage elsewhere about the avalanche this week.)
I went into a public meeting (no kidding, I accidentally posted it as “pubic meeting” on the community Facebook page where most avalanche updates were being shared) at 8 p.m. Wednesday expecting to share mostly good news with locals forced to leave their homes a day earlier. I thought I’d scored a decent bit of unique information when Svalbard’s governor told me the majority of displaced residents would be allowed to return home that night. But there were 13 buildings where evacuations were being continued indefinitely.
Oh, the humiliation of discovering how small-time I am for considering that a “scoop.”
I’d be been at the meeting for maybe 90 seconds when I discovered – because I was constantly reloading about a dozen websites covering the situation every minute or so – Norway’s public TV/radio network was reporting the governor wanted a permanent abandonment of the 13 housing complex mentioned above. The story was missing a lot of details, including my suddenly panicked question of if/when people including me would be allowed in to retrieve critical items (one tenant said he had to leave with no money and his wife wearing only her underwear; I, in the bigger picture, was fixated on a chess set made by my ex-wife).
I suppose I could have gotten the answers to some of those questions had I listened to the governor and others during the meeting. But I was so frantically typing in what I could discern from the NRK story and other stuff I blotted it out. Or I could just admit that after more than eight years here I don’t grok a word of Norwegian, but I’m trying to keep up a false pretense nobody who knows me believes anymore. (Seriously, under heavy stress I suffer a bizarre inability to hear Norwegian; childhood reading tells me I’m not alone in a sudden ability to know only a native language under duress).
Meeting ends around 9 p.m. Despite being in a daze, I do my job. First by talking to the governor about why the decision was made and, since she said experts consider the buildings safe from avalanches for now, why residents couldn’t return home for the short term instead of suddenly finding themselves immediately homeless late on a Wednesday night.
“The situation was defined as safe before the avalanche came,” she said.
OK, I admit that’s a hell of an answer.
I then talk to a woman I know who’s gone through more trauma than I, since she was in one of the homes destroyed by an avalanche Dec. 19, 2015. Like a few others I ran into, she was also a bit dazed and bewildered by the sudden announcement. But unlike me, she actually understood what was being said during the meeting – and immediately afterward at about 9 p.m. when it was announced residents of the evacuated areas could collect belongings until 10 p.m.
She passed this information on to me at about 9:25 p.m. Which is when I ended the interview.
I rushed out, or at least as much as one can on a crippled leg while carrying a backpack full of computer gear and notebooks, a camera bag, and a couple grocery bags containing food and a few essentials I grabbed immediately after the avalanche. I dashed toward a lot city center I parked my car in that morning, but it wasn’t there or in to two lots closest by.
Somebody borrowed my car during the afternoon to take some pictures for me and returned it to a different spot without telling me. And I had no immediate way to contact him.
I increased by one the number of people traumatized by the evening’s developments when the next move was spotting a person getting into their car. I pounded on the fogged-over window (prompting an understandable shout of fright) and then ripped open the door (which, revealing an even scarier sight, apparently left her too terrified to utter a sound).
Anyhow, I pleaded and she agreed. As for the few minutes it took to get there, I’ll quote Mark Twain: “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of this scene.”
A barrier blocking off the street where one row of evacuated apartment stood meant she (and everyone else) wasn’t going to be able to use vehicles as part of any snatch-and-grab operations. Except there didn’t seem to be anybody there at all besides a policeman guarding the barrier.
It was now about 9:40 p.m. I told/asked him (yeah, I know that sounds odd) about the opportunity to grab stuff before 10 p.m. I’m not sure if he knew the details, but he answered curtly “a few minutes.” Which made me think maybe my info had been wrong.
Anyhow, it quickly became clear it would take more than a few minutes just to get myself and my bags to the apartment and back, and about halfway I simply dropped them in a place with relatively little blowing snow. I’d say I ran the rest of the way, but anybody familiar with my limp from a deformed hip knows no word exists to describe the act of me trying to move fast.
Anyhow, into the building, snow-covered shoes off (because during a crisis sometimes ridiculously small things seem to matter), down the hall and into my flat. I had no game plan, just the sudden realization it didn’t matter if I only had a few minutes because I wasn’t going to be able to pack more than I could carry. And since the stuff most important to me is mostly computer related, it’s very heavy.
So it was a very short visit, grabbing hard drives containing archives of my life’s work and similar items, used a few clothes to pad them, and carried them out in a couple of reusable grocery bags. Those familiar with my exit from Gamle Sykehuset last year may recall I stuffed most of what I salvaged into a couple dozen of them since there was no opportunity to find boxes. No, there’s not a lot of nostalgia in revisiting the experience.
Obviously it took one-and-a-half trips to get back to the barrier, during which I still saw nobody. Except this time the police officer was also gone, which seemed a bit bewildering. Anyhow, I stacked all my stuff by the barrier while pondering if I should push my luck and go back for more stuff. In the end I decided against since, until I know where I’m staying for more than one night, I don’t need more to be carrying around with me.
I stayed at a hotel maybe three hundred meters away that night, but there was no way I was going to be able to make the steep up-and-down walk on icy streets to get there with my gear. So I called a cab in much more sane voice than I used with the unfortunate women who drove me to the barrier.
Before he got there I used my mobile phone to take what I think is the second selfie of my life (I don’t remember the reason for the first). Considering I don’t know how/where to aim the camera, it was night and my hands were shaking I consider it a Pulitzer-worthy shot.
The cab driver, knowing the situation since everyone knows everything almost immediately here, was kind enough to get me to the hotel for a pittance.
Which brings me to what for now is the rather anti-climatic end of the ordeal. I updated the news story about the long-term evacuations and now I’m writing this since, despite getting maybe 90 minutes of sleep the night after the avalanche, my brain isn’t exactly inclined to shut down and allow slumber. There are a lot of uncertainties similar to last year’s situation: where will I live, how on Earth am I going to pay for it and how will this complicate keeping up this fishwrapper which already is a bit beyond my ability to keep up.
But unlike last year, the panic and depression don’t exist for now. A lot of it is realizing I’m relatively fortunate compared to others going through this, but there’s also the realization it’s an incredible blessing to be going through it myself because it means I’m still here a year after being convinced I was going to have to leave. The flat I just left was provided by incredibly generous people, and others have provided assistance of various types and been incredibly supportive of the fishwrapper (which means it’s incredible anybody’s supports it, but I’m certainly not the person to call anybody out on questionable thinking).
So how does this sequel end? I can proudly say exactly like “The Empire Strikes Back.” To be continued. (Please, oh please, may the next installment not include ewocs).