(Note: this story will be updated continuously): An avalanche in the center of Longyearbyen hit ten homes, destroying several, and resulted in the death of a local man in his 40s and serious injuries to three people Saturday morning, including one child in critical condition as of Saturday evening. Dozens more homes and apartments near hillsides were evacuated Saturday due to possible additional slides.
The avalanche was triggered at about 10:30 a.m. by a storm that brought hurricane-force winds and heavy snow to Longyearbyen on Friday night and Saturday morning.
More than 100 people participated in rescue efforts after the slide on Sukketoppen, which is on the east side of town and overshadows one of the densest residential areas, according to The Governor of Svalbard.
A total of nine people were hospitalized with injuries, including two children and an adult who were hurt seriously. The two children plus two other youths and an adult were flown by air ambulance to Tromsø.
Among the injured was Anne Kristin Jakobsen, 44, who was buried alive under the snow and resorting to banging on a microwave oven to make enough noise to catch the attention of rescuers, according to Svalbardposten.
“She had incredible luck,” said Frank Jakobsen, who was also among those hospitalized, in an interview with the newspaper. “Some houses are moved helter-skelter and others are crushed. The city is filled with snow. I’ve never seen so much snow in my entire life up here, but luckily – when it happened – the weather is good so that the emergency crews could get their work done.”
The avalanche knocked some homes up to 40 meters away from their foundations. Arnfinn Engan, whose home was among those buried, compared the situatuon to a war zone.
“We noticed nothing before the blow that violently struck the house,” said Engan, a Longyearbyen resident since 1997, in an interview with Avisa Nordland. “It was an enourmous blow. My wife and I had to jump out the window in a storage room to get ourselves out. The rest of the house was surrounded by huge accumulations.”
Extra medical staff and rescue teams with search dogs were sent from Tromsø shortly after the avalanche occurred. The city also posted announcements on its website and social media seeking anyone able to assist in the rescue and asking they bring shovels.
Tone Hertzberg, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Saturday evening authorities had accounted for all of the area’s residents.
The residences evacuated include all of Nybyen; Vei 228 nos. 6-16 and 15-21; Vei 226 nos. 10, 12 and 31-37; Vei 222 nos. 5-17; Vei 230 nos. 29-39 and Gamle Sykehuset. The road to Nybyen was also closed at Longyerbyen School due to snowslides.
“The reason for the evacuations is the avalanche risk is high and we are taking no chances,” said Gov. Kjerstin Askholt in an interview with Nordlys.
About 120 people have been evacuated from their homes, she said.
“People have offered lodging to those affected, and tourism businesses are contributing vacant apartments and rooms,” Askholt told the newspaper.
She said does not know when evacuees can move back to their homes.
“We are bringing up experts from the mainland to assess the avalanche risk in the area,” Askholt said.
Two geologists from the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute were scheduled to arrive in Longyearbyen on Saturday night. Police and other officals are monitoring the evacuated areas.
Displaced residents without cash or credit cards can purchase necessities at Svalbardbutikken through Sunday by providing their name, telephone number and employer, if applicable.
The storm caused widespread damage throughout town, including ripping the off roof of Longyearbyen School and sending it onto the adjacent recreation field. An above-ground sewage pipe was torn loose and scattered across the road between Huset and Galleri Svalbard.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg wrote on Twitter that authorities were following the situation closely and “all available resources are mobilized.”
Svalbard, unlike most of Norway, lacks an avalanche warning center, although a pilot project is scheduled to begin in February. Anne Britt Leifseth, director of the Norwegian Avalanche Centre, told Aftenposten she can’t rule out the possibility the buried homes could have been evacuated beforehand if a system existed.
“Longyearbyen is extremely avalanche prone, that is well documented,” she said. “Therefore it is important to put in place an early warning systems in Svalbard also.”
Odd-Arne Mikkelsen, a shift leader at the avalanche center, told Aftenposten that while the weather has calmed, wind can make snow swirl up and settle in a way that triggers additional avalanches.
The forecast for Sunday is temperatures just below freezing and winds up to 35 kilometers an hour, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. Temperatures are expected to drop beginning Monday night to near minus 20 Celsius, with light winds forecast through the end of next week.
Longyearbyen Mayor Arlid Olsen told NRK the tragedy may reshape the city since there are questions about whether homes in the damaged area should be repaired or rebuilt.
“We need to bring in experts who need to consider if we can build and how we can build,” he said. “But as I see the area now, I cannot imagine how people could feel safe there. So my immediate reaction is that we cannot build new there.”