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Seeking an independent investigation

Despite several reports warning about the avalanche dangers i Longyearbyen, no measures were taken. FOTO: Geir Barstein

Seeking an independent investigation

Despite a number of reports during the past 20 years warning about avalanche danger in parts of Longyearbyen, no permanent measures were implemented. Now the local council wants to find out what went wrong.

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15.01.2016 kl 11:25

The Longyearbyen Community Council has a statutory obligation to identify and safeguard the population of the city, and Mayor Arild Olsen (Labor Party) said it is now "quite natural to have an investigation" into what went wrong when an avalanche smashed 11 houses and took two lives before Christmas.

"We do not know how the investigation is to take place yet, or who should perform it, but I am clear on one thing: We will not sit in the driver's seat," he said. "We shall not examine ourselves."

Five reports

Between 1992 to 2007, the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) issued a total of five reports and notes about the avalanche danger to settlements from Vei 222 to Vei 230, according to documents Svalbardposten has accessed.

Each concludes homes are exposed. But no permanent protective barriers or warning measures to prevent damage to people or materials were put into place.

"Did local officials take the risk too lightly?"

"In the light of hindsight you can say that, but I will not draw any conclusions as to why it has been handled as it was done through the years," Olsen said. "I can't say that there is someone who has not done their job since the first report."

Had warnings

Last week, NRK Troms reported notification procedures were established during the 1990s, but ended in 2001.

Among others, Atle Brekken, a former engineer in Svalbard Samfunnsdrift AS (SSD), and then fire chief Kjell Onarheim went up the mountainsides to regularly check the situation as a result of the first avalanche report that came in 1992.

Se bildet større

NGI has estimated how far each house was swept by the avalanche. FOTO: Geir Barstein (foto) / NGI/Sysselmannen (grafikk)

"This was a routine if there was bad weather," Brekken told Svalbardposten.

"If they had followed the report that was made, it would have been secured up there long ago," he said. "Plans for hedges were started, but I do not know how far they got."

"Why was the work abandoned?"

"I don't know," Brekken said. "Maybe it was because I quit in 2001. The new person who took over might not have had the same training on this."

On Jan. 1, 2002, SSD was incorporated into the newly established Longyearbyen Community Council that replaced the Svalbard Council. Brekke said he believes knowledge and routines can be lost in the transition to a new form of government.

"SSD was the agenda provider for the Svalbard Council in the old days," he said. "It was we who made plans for what was to be addressed next year, but that changed when the local council came. We lost something along the way."

Getting an overview

Olsen said they are working to get an overview of what has happened during the past 20 years.

He said does not know why the work that started in the 1990s was halted ten years later.

"We are sitting with quite a few documents now and working on reading up on everything that has happened," he said. "What started out when and who was responsible, I do not know as of now. It is difficult to determine, since the archives from that time are not readily available. We are struggling to find the full history. Everything that has been done - and not done - will be subject to investigation."

In 2012, work to put in place an avalanche warning for Longyearbyen started. This was originally scheduled to be in place as a pilot program in early 2016, but was accelerated as a result of the avalanche tragedy. Now forecasts are issued daily on a par with the mainland.

In a note dated Jan. 4 of this year, the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute stated avalanche danger to buildings can increase rapidly during the winter. Olsen said city is at risk of more evacuations in the coming months.

"The new avalanche warning procedures shall provide 24 hours' notice in terms of evacuations," he said. "The system consists both of local eyes and ears that report from the mountain slopes every day, and assessments of weather data."

"So people may be forced to evacuate homes based on weather reports, before potentially dangerous avalanche weather strikes?"

"Yes. The whole point of the system is that we want to stay ahead," Olsen said.

"Is there a risk of a "cry wolf" situation?"

"I'm not an avalanche expert, but I have confidence that the NVE, which owns the system, handles it wisely," Olsen said. "They are accustomed to avalanche warnings, and they won't be talking about evacuations only it comes a little precipitation and and easterly wind."

At its peak, more than 200 people were evacuated from Vei 230 at the southern end to Nybyen at the northern end as a result of avalanche danger after the disaster that struck Dec. 19. Due to Christmas holidays and layoffs from the Store Norske crisis, many homes in Longyearbyen were empty, which eased the logistics.

"Does the city always have the capacity to handle a large evacuation on short notice?"

"We were 'lucky' before since many were gone," Olsen said. "But there will always be a certain number of homes that are available. In addition, we have resources such as hotels. At worst, we have to use the systems for when there really is a crisis, such as using cots or simply sending down people by plane."

Translated by Mark Sabbatini

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