CANDLES DEFYING THE STORM: ‘Slowly we have taken back everyday life’ three years after a deadly and fateful avalanche hits Longyearbyen

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There’s a vast dark gap between other homes lit with Christmas lights, and beneath it candles flickering in a snowbank in defiance of heavy rain and wind. Aside from the elements there’s mostly an erie quiet since the water-and-ice surface makes movement treacherous, but at intervals people pause to reflect, place their own candle and exchange memories with others who shared one of Longyearbyen’s most tragic moments three years ago.

An avalanche that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people on Dec. 15, 2015, inflicted pain on the community far beyond the shock and loss of the moment. Lingering issues range from unresolved legal disputes about responsibility to the planned demolition of 142 neighboring residences starting next year due to fears of their vulnerability.

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Scores of rescue workers and local residents dig frantically through tons of snow to find people buried by an avalanche near the center of Longyearbyen on Dec. 19 2015. Two people died in the snowslide, which knocked 11 homes up to 80 meters from their foundations. This uncredited photo became the dominant image of worldwide media coverage.

“Brutally and without warning everything changed,” Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen wrote in a post on his Facebook page on the three-year anniversary of the avalanche. “The characteristic architecture of the pointed-roof houses was transformed into unrecognizable chaos after the avalanche. Brutal, chaotic and silent at the same time. Really just indescribable.”

But for Olsen, a friend of both families who lost loved ones, the day also stands as a tribute to a community’s resilience.

“Slowly we have taken back everyday life because we stood together during the first few hours while many had fervent hopes of the best outcome and when hope was ebbing away,” he wrote. “Today we are lighting candles at the base of Sukkertoppen and we are still standing together in grief, but also in the joy of the lives that were spared and the effort that made there.”

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Atle Husby, a musician and teacher, was one of two people killed by an avalanche on Dec. 15, 2015. Photo by Mari Tefre.

Among those sharing memories online was Elise Strømseng, who as a member of the local bluegrass band Blåmyra suffered from the loss of bandmate Atle Husby, 42, a teacher who was killed when his home was submerged by the avalanche. The other victim was Nikoline Røkenes, 2, who died a day after she and her sister, Pernille, 3, were dug out of the snow.

“I’ll light two candles. For the two we miss and lack,” Strømseng wrote. “And sending warm thoughts to two families on the mainland who are forever affected by the storm in December of 2015.”

The avalanche was triggered by a storm starting the previous evening that was the worst to hit Longyearbyen in decades. Intense snowfall that buried vehicles (and dogs inside kennels) and winds gusting to 120 kilometers an hour in town (160 km/h in exposed areas beyond) ripped roofs from buildings, ruptured above-ground sewage mains and barricaded some doors behind drifts several meters here.

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“Quiet before the storm:” A snow-covered bicycle rests against a rail outside Kulturhuset shortly before an avalanche wiped out 11 homes a few hundred meters away. Photo by Roger Zahl Ødegård.

But the storm calmed around 8 a.m. on the fateful day and it appeared serious harm had been avoided, as families began enjoying leisurely Saturday morning holiday get-togethers and thought of the vast winter wonderland outside.

At roughly 10:20 a.m. that tranquility was shattered as 5,000 tons of snow, forming a wall 200 meters wide and up to four meters high, smashed through homes at the base of Sukkertoppen, knocking them up to 80 meters from their foundations. Five adults and four children were buried inside their homes.

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Rows of homes on Vei 230 are shown before and after the Dec. 19 avalanche that hit 11 structures. The addresses of the homes are noted in yellow. Before photo by the Norwegian Polar Institute. After photo by Geir Barstein / Svalbardposten.

More than a hundred rescuers and volunteers rushed to the scene in a frantic dig for the victims, one of whom was rescued alive when she managed to bang on a microwave oven with her hands loud enough to be heard. An evacuation order was issued quickly thereafter for people in 180 homes in at-risk areas, the first of many that would follow due to heightened fears that just a few weeks ago forced dozens of locals to move out of their homes for the winter with about an hour’s notice.

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The 5,000-ton avalanche that sturck on Dec. 19, 2015, was 200 meters wide and up to four meters high. Photo by The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate.

The avalanche occurred a short time after the community was shaken to its core by the impending shutdown of most of Store Norske’s coal mining, resulting in hundreds of workers and their families being forced to look for jobs elsewhere. The disaster greatly complicated the local economic dilemma and triggered an acute housing shortage, which local and national leaders are trying to address by building extensive new housing in record time to accommodate residents displaced by the wintertime evacuations and upcoming demolitions.

More personal scars also linger. Nikoline’s parents, Pia Sivertsen and Kim Rune Røkenes, are posting spirit-of-the-season messages and pictures online (including those of a son born since the loss of their daughter) without mention of their tragedy, but legal action against the government and owner of their wrecked home due to alleged negligence continues to be stuck in prolonged negotiations. Legal issues are also pending for owners of some properties affected by the snowslide and its aftermath, since Svalbard is exempt from a national policy that provides compensation for loss due to natural disasters.

But for those with thoughts of a dark future after that dark day three years ago, with some suggesting Longyearbyen might lose more than a quarter of its 2,200 residents and much of its economic activity, the great uncertainties are accompanied by signs of a hopeful long-term future – if not the one all might have hoped for. The population has actually increased to more than 2,300 residents, due in large part to a booming tourism industry, and its importance as an international research hub is becoming more evident as climate change inflicts wider and harsher impacts worldwide.

“Much remains, but I am convinced that we will succeed, because our biggest polar feat isn’t skiing or sailing to this utmost outpost in the north, but to build a family community at 78 degrees north,” Olsen wrote.

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