MASS DESTRUCTION: Demolition of 142 avalanche-zone homes; 553M kr. for new housing, protective measures gets final OK

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After three years of dealing with the enormous physical and emotional scars inflicted on Longyearbyen by a deadly avalanche, local leaders unanimously approved an emergency security plan Monday that will cause a far greater imprint by demolishing 142 homes in at-risk areas while spending 553 million kroner for new housing and protective measures.

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A map shows residential and guest housing that will be demolished under a plan approved Monday by the Longyearbyen Community Council. Buildings shaded in red are in the highest-risk area, which has been subject to long-term evacuations the past two winters as well as the current one. Buildings shaded in green are in deemed to also be at unacceptable risk, but will be protected with safety barriers and other measures. Map by The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate.

The massive overhaul means much of the near-mountainside housing between downtown Longyearbyen and the footbridge beneath the Funken hotel are scheduled to be removed starting next fall.  Residents there, many of whom have been subject to multiple short- and long-term evacuations of the homes the past few years, will have to move into the newly built or other housing – and possibly incur some of the costs for doing so.

“We have been in a constant evacuation situation where we move about 10 percent of the population several times a year,” Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olson told NRK. “Therefore, it is important to get out of that situation.”

While not hitting residents with the immediate shock and trauma of an avalanche or immediate evacuation order, the plan adds to longer-term large-scale changes making Longyearbyen largely unrecognizable from the community it was just a decade ago.

Among other things, the uprooting comes in the immediate wake of another tumultuous  transformation that saw Longyearbyen’s century-long coal mining industry practically vanish during the past several years. That has resulted in a significant societal and economic shift as hundreds of long-time Norwegian workers were replaced with a largely foreign population working lower-paying and shorter-term tourism industry jobs.

In addition, Longyearbyen is nearing 100 straight months of above-average temperatures due to climate change, the disruptions from which include an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme storms that have triggered the avalanches, landslides and flooding that resulted in the comprehensive demolition/rebuilding plan.

As disruptive as implementing the plan is likely to be, it’s actually the least expensive (if not least least destructive) of five alternatives proposed by The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, which performs official avalanche risk assessments and hired several consultants to help draft the proposals.

The preferred alternative spends 240 million for snow barriers and other protective measures, 51 million kroner for demolition, 207 million kroner for new buildings and 30 million kroner for construction upgrades and one million kroner for maintenance.

Three of the other alternatives are essentially modest adjustments to the recommended mix of protection/destruction/construction measures. Two call for demolishing 158 residences, spending 276 million kroner on new buildings and upgrades, and spending between 255 million and 297 million kroner on protective measures. The third proposes demolishing 140 residences, 234 million kroner in new buildings and upgrades, and 282 million kroner for protective measures.

The other alternative (officially Security Concept 1 in the report) is a relatively drastic departure that seeks the most protection (412 million kroner) and least demolition (90 residences). While shunned by the NVE, the agency notes it was the preferred option of two consulting firms.

“Their recommendation is assessed on the basis of the mandate of their mission, which is to ensure the maximum possible development in the areas of Lia and Vannledningsdalen,” the report notes. “Despite high investment and maintenance costs, they are still recommending this because it is the only option that ensures the housing in the middle part (of the affected property). Other social considerations have not been taken into account.”

Some of the protection measures have already been implemented, with 470 meters of snow barriers placed above exposed homes on Sukkertoppen earlier this year. In summer and autumn, 470 meters were set up with support structures in Lia over the tip houses.

While the NVE, city and other government entities are entirely responsible for the cost of the safety measures – and which Parliament is providing hundreds of millions of kroner of supplemental funding for – questions remain about how much property owners will be responsible for costs of moving/upgrades.

“Some homeowners will have to contribute, but it is primarily the state that has the greatest financial responsibility,” Olsen told NRK.

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