"Everything was underwater, everywhere"

Thursday 21. May 2015 | By: Birna Lárusdóttir

For the last two years the environmental and resource specialist Herdís Sigurjónsdóttir has been a part of the University Centre of the Westfjords teaching staff, on the Coastal and Marine Management master’s program. Herdís, who is also a doctoral candidate in public administration and crisis management, works for the engineering company VSÓ Consulting and previously spent a decade working for the Icelandic Red Cross, as well as being active in local politics in Mosfellsbær. She teaches the course on crisis management and usually spends three weeks at a time staying in Ísafjörður with the UW master’s program.

At the beginning of February this year, Herdís happened to be teaching in Ísafjörður when her subject matter literally came to her. Extremely high water levels led to widespread damage in the town and created a situation that required Civil Protection Authority of Iceland involvement. In the aftermath of the floods the local authorities reached out to Herdís to ask for her advice. Herdís was also able to use the unfolding situation outside the classroom as teaching material inside it.

Getting to know the local community

Herdís has agreed to share her account of the events of those days in Ísafjörður and how she integrated them into her teaching. “In the course I have emphasised preparing the students for work in coastal areas by showing them the local community. Although the students come from all over the world, and there are country-by-country differences in emergency response methods, all systems are built on certain pillars in local communities. That’s why I chose to give them an insight into the response system in the Westfjords.

Field trips are an important part of the teaching and the students get to see conditions with their own eyes and the opportunity to ask strategists and frontline response workers questions, without a middle man. At the beginning of the course in February we visited the mayor of Ísafjörður, Gísli Halldór Halldórsson, who went over the municipality’s role in the organisation of civil protection and community infrastructure. We also went to the fire station and saw the equipment and the civil protection control centre which is also located there.

Among the things the students were told about were the role of the fire brigade, the location of stations in the region and their projects. They also didn’t find it boring getting to try on the fire fighters’ gear and have their photos taken with fire chief Þorbjörn Sveinsson. We visited the police station and spoke with Westfjords police chief, Hlynur Snorrason, though it was probably Tindur who made the biggest impression on the students—despite saying very little and having four legs.

We also received guest lecturers who told us about research and preparedness. Among them were Harpa Grímsdóttir from the Icelandic met office avalanche centre, which is based in Ísafjörður, and another met office employee, Björn Erlingsson, who explained the remarkable flood studies he has been working on in the area for the last year. Ómar Már Jónsson, a former mayor of Súðavík, came to the Westfjords and told us about the devastating avalanches which struck the Westfjords in 1995 and the subsequent reconstruction of the community.

Bryndís Friðgeirsdóttir from the Red Cross went over the organisation’s roles and several students also took part in an exercise with the search & rescue team. In addition to this Rögnvaldur Ólafsson visited from the civil protection department of the national police commissioners and described the role of civil protection in rural Iceland and in the local community. He is originally from Bolungarvík and long worked as a police officer in the Westfjords, which gives him a useful local viewpoint. All this was done to give the students a holistic overview of society’s emergency response infrastructure.

The day of the ‘Great Flood’

When I looked out of the window on Sunday 8th February 2015 I thought it would be a cosy indoors-day. The rain beat against the glass and I could tell it would not be difficult to concentrate on marking student projects. There was nothing to suggest that the day would be as dramatic as it turned out to be. 

Due to very heavy precipitation and thawing in the mountain above the town, water started to be pumped out of the cellar of the local hospital at around the time I started marking. By midday it had started flooding in other parts of the town. Storm drains overflowed due to the runoff from the mountain and that water started flooding up out of the sewers as well. Council workers, the fire brigade, the police and search & rescue workers assisted the townspeople in saving their valuables long into the night. The operation included setting up powerful water pumps and using sandbags to direct water away from houses and other infrastructure.

I also went around the town to look at the flooding. I’d seen some pictures online during the day, but seeing it with my own eyes was an experience. I saw water erupting from closed wells, a torrential river running down a slope which is usually a residential street and a new river running between houses. When I got to the sports fields in the evening there were farmers busy pumping water off the fields with agricultural spreaders, which in my opinion is a good example of thinking outside the box.

That day water flooded into houses on Túngata, Pólgata, Sólgata, Strandgata, Hrannargata and Urðarvegur. The Old Hospital, which today houses the library, records depository, and photography museum, also suffered and at the Suðureyri swimming pool, the hot tubs washed away and pipes broke. It was clear to see that the whole community was working together. It was a massive flood, the biggest I had seen, and not at all dissimilar to the one I was about to witness in my hometown of Mosfellsbær a few weeks later when masses of snow melted in just a few hours and everything was underwater.

Report on lessons learnt and procedures

Because I also work for VSÓ Consulting, Ísafjarðarbær asked me to assist after the floods. The project consisted of compiling the lessons learnt from the experiences of council staff and others during the operation; which was gathered, among other means, through meeting staff and seeing who did what, and with whom; assessing the area affected by the floods; comparing to previous floods and proposing building improvements based on the results. Finally the project involved developing procedures for the municipality to respond to similar future floods based on the findings of the report. The working procedures are designed to improve alertness, ensure timely sharing of information and make operations and co-ordination more effective. By pre-emptively ensuring the shared understanding of all stakeholders, the risk of wasting time on organisation and misunderstandings is reduced when it really matters.

Research in the local community

The floods and the response in the area therefore became a part of my disaster management course at the University Centre and I informed the students about the work as it was happening and how the community was dealing with the consequences of the floods. When I looked at the matter closer I found disaster-related research conducted by previous students for the good of the community. The University Centre also had a seat on the Pollur (affectionate name of the inshore area of Skutulsfjörður fjord) committee, which looked at future leisure boat facilities developments and coastal protections in the Pollur. It was an exciting community project which looked at possible permutations of coastal protections for Pollgata road in Ísafjörður which could also be used as boat moorings, and how to improve residents’ access to the coast and sea along Pollgata and Skutulsfjarðarbraut.

The University Centre and the community

It is clear in my mind that the existence of the University Centre in the community has led to student research which is good for the local community. The Vísindaport open lectures have also focused attention on what is happening at each time and acted as a knowledge forum. In this vein, an open meeting was held about the floods on the following Friday, under the title “Everything was underwater, everywhere” which went over the floods and their impacts. A lively discussion ensued, though several guests held no prisoners in saying how they had not enjoyed good communication with the municipal authorities. Everyone who spoke agreed, however, that it would be a good decision to learn from the experience and improve systems, so that better arrangements could be made if similar operations are needed in the future.

Relations with the University Centre of the Westfjords

I have pondered throughout writing this just how valuable the University Centre is for the Westfjords. I am no expert in how things have been, but based on what I have seen I am convinced that it is possible to increase relations between the University Centre and the community even more. Looking at disaster research, there is a lot of experience in the region which needs to be taken advantage of in a focused manner, as well as the results of research projects which have been undertaken in the region. Students, companies, and institutions must be linked together and further research encouraged in this field. Such connections would be very profitable. They would both give the opportunity for research-linked projects for master’s students in various sectors of the local community, and at the same time improve the resilience of the community. “

Herdís Sigurjónsdóttir