Beds of summer? Evacuation of homes after avalanche may be lifted to accommodate extra seasonal workers

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An evacuation of dozens of homes in effect since an avalanche hit two nearby apartment buildings Feb. 21 may be lifted soon – although perhaps not as soon or predictably as city and private employers hope.

A resolution to lift the evacuation between June 1 and Oct. 1 was unanimously approved Monday by the Longyearbyen Community Council. But Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt, who ordered the evacuation under Norway’s Police Act, said Tuesday no decision will be made until after a meeting of emergency officials on Thursday.

“It will not be a special day, but the mountain needs to be free of snow,” she said. The snow-free mandate was imposed in March and she said she has not changed her position.

But Askholt did offer hope to those hoping the evacuation will be lifted, saying “it’s a natural thing to do quite soon.”

The governor did lift a restriction on the apartment buildings destroyed at Vei 228, allowing demolition crews to begin removing the wreckage.

City officials and private employers say the town’s housing situation – already dire due to the number of homes destroyed and evacuated due to two avalanches since December of 2015 – is more so now as summer tourism season starts. The city’s resolution calls upon the governor to set a date for lifting so evacuation so rentals can be planned in advance.

“There wasn’t a big discussion about it,” said Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen, referring to the resolution. “I reckoned that we at the time of the first decision figured that we would do it this way. It’s not rational to let them stay empty when we need them for housing employees during the summer.”

The affected homes are those closest to the mountain in the neighborhood known as Lia, near the center of town at the following addresses: 

Vei 222-7, 222-9, 222-11, 222-13, 222-15, 222-17, Vei 226-10, 226-12, 226-31, 226-33, 226-35 and 226-37.

Olsen said discussions are ongoing between local and Parliament officials about funding protective barriers so the homes can be used during the winter. Work would likely beginning at Vei 230, where an avalanche on Dec. 19, 2015, destroyed 11 homes and killed two people, and then the rest of the area.

“These are big projects and it will take some time to get permanent safety measures in place,” he said.

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