FIVE YEARS AFTER ‘THE’ AVALANCHE: Survivors moving on, but the wreckage and recovery continues reshaping Longyearbyen after fateful tragedy takes away lives and homes – and security

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Exactly five years ago Malte Jochmann and Elke Morgner, their two young children, and a visiting friend were buried in the kitchen under tons of snow that had just destroyed their home and 10 others. Just after noon on Saturday in the 24-hour darkness of Longyearbyen’ polar night, the couple of their children gathered at a candlelight memorial perhaps 100 meters away from their former home and reflected on how they were among the lucky ones.

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A home where Malte Jochmann and Elke Morgner lived with their two children when it was stuck by an avalanche on Dec. 19, 2015, is circled in red. Ten other homes were also destroyed and two people killed. Photo by Arve Johnsen and Jørn Hansen / The Governor of Svalbard.

“We’ve been able to move on with our lives very well,” Jochmann said, noting the process began when his family got new housing only a few days later. “We just had so much help from our employer, and from our neighbors and everyone here.”

That help and their own frantic efforts on Dec. 19, 2015, was among the many real-life nightmare narratives from the avalanche that killed two people, and left permanent physical and psychological scars on the community.

In a minute-by-minute account of their burial and rescue as experienced by those inside and outside the family’s home published by NRK a couple of weeks after the avalanche, Morgner described hearing her two-year-old-daughter crying somewhere unseen a short distance away as Jochmann – after immediately thinking “this is the end” – beginning to frantically dig after he discovered being able to move just a slight amount.

Scores of emergency officials and volunteers responded within minutes of the avalanche that occurred at about 10:30 a.m., with a 200-meter-wide and four-meter-high wave of snow weighing 5,000 tons of snow moving at about 80 km/h slammed into two rows on homes along Vei 230, knocking them up to 80 meters from their foundations. While the family and their visiting friend were extracted shortly after 11 a.m., others weren’t as lucky.

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Workers install fabric in a five-meter-deep trench this fall along the base of Sukkertoppen as part of a large-scale avalanche protection project after two avalanches in 2015 and 2017 destroyed homes and lives. Photo by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate.

Atle Husby, 42, a teacher and musician, died before he could be rescued, and Nikoline Røkenes, 2, died at a Tromsø hospital after being buried in the snow for more than two hours along with her sister and parents.

The avalanche triggered from Sukkertoppen, towering over hundreds of homes and businesses along the eastern side of the center of Longyearbyen, marked the beginning of an era defined by frequent evacuations during major storms and distress among many living in areas suddenly “at-risk.” After anther large avalanche destroyed two apartment complexes in February of 2017, hours after experts declared there was no risk – a flurry of new assessments, warning systems and preventative measures such as snow barriers, the permanent abandonment of more than 100 student dorms in the outlaying area of Nybyen and demolition of about 140 residences near the center of town due to their potential exposure.

The demolition of homes that began earlier this year is in the middle stages, as are the large-scale preventative projects on Sukkertoppen where rows of snow barriers are a stark presence above the fenced-off area where the destroyed homes once stood. Work on that project and others in areas at-risk of avalanche and landslides is expected to continue for at least the next two years, according to an update on the work published Thursday by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate.

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The area where 11 homes were destroyed by an avalanche in 2015 is now fenced off and in disarray as extensive work to install snow barriers, drainage ditches and other preventative measures is in the middle stages. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Score of new homes – many financed by large amounts of emergency funding from Norway’s government for projects related to the crisis – continue to be built in the valley between the two mountain ridges lining the center of town and other “safe” areas. Emergency officials and geological/climate researchers, who have installed extensive monitoring equipment throughout town and implemented online observer databases in addition to an official warning system, are continuing to update their knowledge base they say was forever altered when the two avalanches were trigged by extreme storms that resulted in conditions defying historical assumptions.

“Climate change is something that is happening in our community which has cost human lives and which has the power to take more,” Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen he told NRK, which published an in-depth feature about the avalanche and its aftermath on its five-year anniversary. “They define where you can and cannot live, where you can move safely and not, what you can do and not, and the business climate for the future. It is all-encompassing.”