WARNING SIGNS: Another major avalanche shatters people’s faith in official alert system as well as homes


Exasperating as the multiple widespread evacuations were, there was a general level of support and understanding for the “better safe than sorry” policy of local leaders. Now that’s been shaken up as much as residents’ nerves were following an avalanche 18 months ago that started it all.


Knut Aune Hoseth, acting regional director of the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, and Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt discuss Tuesday’s avalanche during a public meeting at Kulturhuset. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

An avalanche that destroyed two apartment buildings on Vei 228 on Tuesday occurred after officials decided not to evacuate buildings early that morning due to a heavy snowstorm. The decision was based on an avalanche warning system they said utilized the best expertise and monitoring available.

“We’ve all been happy with the avalanche warning system established after the fatal avalanche accident in December 2015,” Gov. Kjerstin Askholt told several dozen people at a community meeting Tuesday night. “Why it did not work in this case we need help to find out.”

The governor is officially responsible for declaring an evacuation, although the decisions on based on discussions with city leaders and experts responsible for risk monitoring.  A Level Four risk level, the second-highest possible, was declared early Tuesday and a no-travel warning issued, but those responsible for the monitoring stated there wasn’t enough snow accumulation for avalanches to reach buildings in town.

Askholt and officials with other agencies involved in Tuesday’s avalanche apologized during the meeting for the outcome, but emphasized they cannot guarantee total certainty for all forecasts.

“Unfortunately there will always be a residual risk that we do not have 100 percent control over,” said Knut Aune Hoseth, acting regional director the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, which is responsible for the monitoring system.

But that categorization upset some residents attending the meeting.

“Whose residual risk are you talking about?” said Veronica Windstad. “Who owns it? Is it your risk or is it mine as a resident of Vei 228? If it is true that it is my own risk, then I’m not willing to take it and move back to the apartment.”

While Hoseth and other officials said they plan to reassess the monitoring system – including consulting with additional government and independent experts to offer a broader perspective on possible human error – some locals said it will be hard to trust future reassurances.

“I feel like you’re sitting with a terrible responsibility here,” said Tommy Anderssen. “Confidence in the avalanche warning system, which we have been told for over a year to rely on, was killed today with a sword stroke.”

Askholt told NRK Wednesday she understands residents are frustrated and anxious. She said an evacuation order issued immediately after the avalanche that affects 226 people in 92 nearby residences remains in effect even though NVE’s lowered the risk of slides to Level Three (considerable) on Wednesday.

“Therefore we will take a very thorough review of the experts who come up today,” she said. “And then we will have a new public meeting tonight where we hope to provide more precise answers that can restore confidence.”

Askholt has said previously assessments erred on the side of caution, resulting in numerous residents questioning the necessity of earlier evacuations. But Espen Klungseth Rotevatn, a Longyearbyen Community Council member who live near the area of Tuesday’s avalanche, told the news network in an interview with the news network.

“Some have mocked that we have been a little too trigger-happy on evacuations after what happened, but I am among those who have felt very safe because of it. But the feeling of safety gets a shot across the bow when it is explicitly stated that the settlement cannot be reached by landslides and just that happens.”

Numerous adults and youths suffered various degrees of trauma following the avalanche on Dec. 19, 2015, that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people on the street adjacent to where Tuesday’s snowslide occurred.

“We were many who suffered serious flashbacks when we came running out to a new avalanche,” Rotevatn said. “Now was thankfully better this time, but it was a very disturbing and frightening sight.”