(Author’s note: I planned to write a “straight” news article about last year’s sudden and drastic evacuation of Gamle Sykehuset, but this week’s avalanche and my once again going through what I did in that building sort of screwed that up. These are my thoughts as one of the evacuees a year later supplemented with factual updates from Svalbardposten, which did exceptional coverage despite being swamped with the avalanche. You’ll have to buy a 30-kroner daypass to read it, but since I’m quoting it I obviously consider it worthy.)
A year after being hastily forced out of my home permanently for the first time, only one thing is certain: the living room of the flat I was in must be pretty drafty during storms these days.
The cracks in the rear wall of Gamle Sykehuset are noticeably more pronounced, but what stood out to me was a very long crack in the upper corner along the roofline of my second-floor flat. A year ago there was a couple of intermittent cracks spanning the range of a few apartments, barely noticeable.
Last Feb. 19, about 30 people including myself were forced to abandon the former hospital on about two hours’ notice because the tenants’ association let city officials see a consultant’s report that the building could collapse at any time due to foundational and other damage caused by thawing permafrost. Given that the association had already decided we would all be required to move in a month or so, I admit wondering why the hell they shared the report since the city was legally obligated to act immediately (I asked to be excluded from certain private discussions and messages because of my role as a journalist; I was less worried about writing anything “private” than being accused of being the leak when stuff inevitably got out). Thankfully the real local newspaper offered some insight.
“We gave (the city) the report because we as the board was responsible,” said Alexander Pilditch, authorized to speak on behalf of what has been a very press-shy board the past year. “They evacuated us and were kind and gave us houses for two weeks. I was lucky and had an employer who could help me with an apartment, but others ended up in a very difficult situation.”
It would take a tall ladder to peer in the upper-floor windows or a crowbar to pry the planks off the doors to see if there’s new damage inside the building – such as the collapse of a staircase that had huge cracks when we were tossed out – has occurred. But there’s some oddities, some of which I don’t remember seeing before (and while I’d say I was under duress at the time, the same is true now having gone through almost exactly the same experience this week).
A second-story window at the front of the building is open. While most of the doors are boarded up, it doesn’t appear an auxiliary door at the front of the building is. There’s some snowmobiles buried very deep in snow and a van that doesn’t seem to have moved since the evacuation.
Pondering such questions is greater preferable to more serious issues such as the inevitable question from others: “So, are you going to get any compensation for the loss of your home?”
A trio of articles in The Local Paper of Record says that, while a lot of people screwed up and a lot of people are getting screwed because of it, getting money from the former is proving a very steep uphill climb for the latter.
There’s no easy way to summarize all the madness and, since there’s been a marked lack of actual movement, not much reason to get into the details. Basically it comes down to:
• There have been structural stability problems with the building ever since it was built in the 1950s. The city was warned the building was unsafe long ago, but authorized it to be converted to apartments.
• The former owners of the building removed a cooling system under the building intended to protect the building if/when the permafrost thawed, and they aren’t talking so nobody knows what the hell they were thinking. It appears no recent tenants in the building knew anything about all this, but that doesn’t matter as far as the insurance company is concerned. Their thinking is the damage is the result of human error, so they’re not liable.
• Not much progress is happening in terms of lawsuits to determine if the city, Store Norske (the current property owner) and/or the former owners are legally liable. Which means everyone left in debt by this – meaning the tenants and the bank – are looking at eating huge losses some of them will not be able to afford.
Yes, I’m one of them. Luckily, the bank realizes that if people like me depart Svalbard for countries elsewhere it almost certainly will have to eat the entire loan I took out on the apartment I owned, so its tried to work with tenants to ease the pain by doing things such as temporarily suspending loan payments (if not the interest).
An interesting tidbit is everyone I’ve talked to during the past year who didn’t live there was utterly convinced we’d get at least a partial settlement for our loss. I was always the dissenting voice and it looks like this might be the one time in my life I’m right. Lovely.
“If you think the insurance company will help you, think again,” Pilditch told Svalbardposten, noting the tenants’ association claim was rejected.
There’s another ominous possibility: the tenants, some already facing bankruptcy, may be forced to pay for the demolition of the building they were evacuated from. I’m not thinking much about it, because I’ll be out of money long before that happens the way things are going.
So now what?
In all honesty, my situation isn’t that complicated. I just need a Brinks truck to drop on me (bonus points to anyone who gets the reference). Or someone to pay me for washing dishes for 15-20 hours a week, during which I’ll be writing stuff for this abysmal pretense of journalism in my head. In this incredibly tough jobs environment, both seem equally likely.
But the real answer is there are alarming implications for both the short and long term. Short term is those tossed out of Gamle Skyehuset now facing debts ranging from difficult to impossible to overcome. But we won’t be the last – expert assessments say there are more buildings facing similar fates, not to mention the people in more than 60 homes in an at-risk avalanche zone are facing similar issues.
A couple of ministers from Norway’s government are visiting Saturday and local leaders are expected to make a plea for funds one of the top items due to such incidents, but unless the government wires enough money to every displaced resident to afford a new place (and there’a a serious question if there’s enough housing for all of them now) it’s hard to see the crisis resolved quickly and somewhat painlessly.
Is there anything good I can say to end this? Definitely, but none of it has to do with the situation itself.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s a miracle I’m even here a year later and that’s due to the generosity of others who found a new apartment for me and paid the costs. There’s been other feel-good stories as well such as Freia Hutzschenreuter, 79, officially registered as homeless since 1975 despite living in Svalbard for 48 years (a complex bureaucratic thing about nationality and the possible loss of her pension), finally getting her situation resolved soon after becoming actually homeless.
Far more important and widespread – or at least I wish it was – is the situation at Gamle Sykehuset – as well as the devastating avalanches/landslides and increasingly freaky weather we’ve had recently – might give others in the world what they’re in for if climate change continues unchecked. But while outside climate change skeptics will blow it off, it may be a useful model for city officials and others responsible for local property management, especially since many of the older buildings here are facing similar problems.
Which means there’s one more certainty: this isn’t the last time this sort of thing is going to happen. Hopefully the lessons of the past will allow a much smoother transition for those affected.