STORM UPDATE: 2nd anniversary of deadly avalanche eerily quiet in hours leading up to major blizzard Tuesday night

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Two candle lamps flicked peacefully in front of a snow heart at 5 p.m. Tuesday on a still-clear street leading to the homes that were destroyed by an avalanche exactly two years ago today. But only a few meters away on both sides were barricades preventing residents from getting to the homes still standing – a literal warning sign of the fury about to hit the area again in the coming hours.

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A barrier blocks access to homes on Vei 230 that were evacuated Monday night due to an approaching snowstorm. The area on the left is where 11 homes were destroyed in an avalanche two years ago. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

A storm expected to dump up to 25 millimeters of precipitation (potentially 10-20 centimeters of snow, depending on conditions) and winds up to 65 kilometers an hour is expected to hit with the most severity last Tuesday night, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.

The storm resulted in the cancellation of a memorial gathering at Svalbard Church for those affected by the avalanche on Dec. 19, 2015, that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people. Unlike last year, when hundreds of residents visited and placed torches at the site of the avalanche on Vei 230, this year the candle lamps were set in place and locals invited to place flowers there, although none of the latter were seen early Tuesday evening.

But for many locals and visitors, the calm before the storm was anything but peaceful.

An evacuation of about 80 residences, affecting up to 180 people, was ordered by The Governor of Svalbard on Monday night. Roads to the affected homes in Lia, and from Longyearbyen School to Nybyen were closed, although Vei 300 – closed for many months due to landslide and other concerns – was opened to allow access to Huset and building in Nybyen not affected by the evacuation order.

“We ask everyone to take precautionary measures, to consider the weather conditions and to stay inside while the storm is ongoing,” Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said in a prepared statement. “Loose objects have to be secured against the wind. The plowing crews will face conditions with poor visibility. If venturing outside is necessary, we encourage everyone to take great care when traveling on or along the roads.”

The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) rates the avalanche risk today as Level 3 (“considerable”).

The evacuation order resulted in Coal Miners Cabins and Gjestehuset 102 closing their doors and relocating guests staying overnight Monday and arriving Tuesday to other accommodations.

“It’s quite a big loss,” Olena Hindseth, manager of Gjestehuset 102, told Svalbardposten. “If we had been evacuated today, instead of yesterday, the cost would have decreased.”

Although little snow was forecast until Tuesday evening, the governor opted for the evacuation Monday “rather than risk rushing an evacuation tomorrow” due to the unpredictability of the storm,” according to Terje Carlsen, a spokesperson for the governor.

 

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