On 19 December 2015 just before 10:26 AM a snow avalanche broke loose at the backyard mountain of Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town (in Svalbard, Norway).
It hit the “pointy houses” nestled against the hillside with such force, that ten of them were lifted off their foundations, swept downhill, crushed into each other just to come to a rest in a big mess of cars, toys, personal belongings and snow.
Many of the houses were pushed all the way against the next streets buildings.
Strangely enough, it was a much more silent process than you would think. People living in the homes which are now next to the destroyed ones reported that all they noticed was a flicker in the electrical lights and a sound, that wasn’t louder than a caterpillar scraping the ice off the road..
Just when they looked outside, they saw devastation, another house’s wall next to the window or just empty space where there used to be a row of buildings.
In that very moment, the first people reacted to help. Here in Longyearbyen almost everyone knows a thing or two about avalanches and that time is an absolute key factor. Within minutes, neighbours started searching for victims and digging in the snow. Someone posted a very brief note to the city’s social network group “Pointy houses hit by avalanche” and minutes later “Come and help.”
Many lost no time to grab a shovel and ran to the site, a sign for many more that something was wrong. The authorities and the rescue personnel arrived to an already ongoing rescue mission, taking over the control and in the end there were over 100 voluntary helpers in addition to the Red Cross and Police moving several tons of snow in search for the missing.
Even though nine people got trapped in destroyed houses, only two persons died. Seven people survived thanks to the effort of the rescuers.
After the injured were transported to the mainland and the acute phase was over, another 180 people had to be evacuated due to the danger of more avalanches at the same hill. Many people offered their guest rooms immediately, empty flats and cabins here and on the mainland, to those who had to leave their homes. Many of the evacuees were also accommodated in student dorms and guest houses
A process of taking care of each other started and a great effort was made to reach everyone. The officials held information meetings for the public almost daily, psychologists gave publicly advise, many places offered a platform to come together to talk to others and many hugs were given to former strangers. The healing process of the psychological wound in the community started fast and effectively.
Experts say that the first response was as good as it could have been, the leader of the city council said in a public meeting, that the families who lost their child or father were very strong and it feels like this community overcomes this huge tragedy very fast, but without disrespect to those lost. Without being emotionally cold.
It is a characteristic I feel is inherent to those coming to and settling in the Arctic. I believe that the people who live in this environment have a very real understanding of the relativity of risks and know that unexpected threats can arise.
The Arctic confronts us on a weekly basis, sometimes daily, with new challenges, even threats to our own health or life. Living here means defying all of them and makes every person grow through them. The Arctic will make every person stronger, more self-empowered, more self-reliant and takes away the focus from everything that does not really matter in life.
I think that is why our small community of long term arctic dwellers, it was virtually just those left in town over Christmas, coped with the avalanche very well all the way from the first minute to this very day.
As we mourn for those lives lost, I feel there is a crumb of comfort in seeing that there is such a strong community here to support every individual. Like winning a gain in feeling for social safety instead of experiencing a loss of feeling for physical safety.
I would personally like to thank all of those digging in the avalanche, exposing themselves to the horror, those offering their homes, those preparing food, those who took care of the injured, physically as well as psychologically. I would like to thank everyone that somehow did support or will support the healing process for giving me and probably many others a feeling of safety and reliability.