Lærdal struggles to rebuild after fire

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The crisis is far from over in the mountain town of Lærdalsøyri, which was ravaged by Norway’s worst fires since World War II in January. Locals are now struggling with reconstruction, planning regulations and the fight to secure NOK 60 million (USD 10 million) from the government.

The fire that swept through the mountain town of Lærdalsøyri during the weekend destroyed as many as 35 homes, while others were left standing. Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Justice Minister Anders Anundsen surveyed the damage on Monday and promised emergency state aid where needed. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Justice Minister Anders Anundsen surveyed the damage following the fire that swept through Lærdalsøyri in January, and promised emergency state aid where needed. While crisis funding was provided, the Lærdal municipality said it need more money to rebuild, but getting its reconstruction plan funded has been a bureaucratic headache. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

The blaze destroyed 40 buildings, many of them historic wooden homes, when it swept through earlier this year. It was devastating for a community already struggling with one of the highest levels of debt per capita in Norway, reported newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). Lærdal is one of the so-called ROBEK municipalities, meaning it does not have a balanced budget and needs government approval to enter financial obligations that incur debt. It also qualifies for government reorganization support due to the large number of jobs that have disappeared from the region over a short amount of time. To make matters worse the population is declining.

The municipality drew up a reconstruction and economic development plan, and brought in a project leader and other experts. With no funds of its own to rebuild, Lærdal is dependent on national handouts. On top of the estimated NOK 200 million expected from insurance, Lærdal requested NOK 5.4 million in crisis help, NOK 28 million for its reconstruction program, and NOK 30 million under the job reorganization scheme in 2015, 2016 and 2017, up from the NOK 3.5 million per year it receives now. At the start of April Lærdal received around NOK 5 million in crisis help, and it hopes the government will factor its reconstruction program into the revised state budget due in May.

“We are still in crisis in Lærdal,” mayor Jan Geir Solheim told DN. “The crisis is not over even though the smoke has settled. Many in the municipality are working just on the fire.” He said he’s struggled with government bureaucracy in making funding requests. “In acute situations, I’d appreciate if someone could put the formalities aside and do something, rather than taking things up later.”

Work is underway
The Ministry of Local Government and Modernization (Kommunal- og moderniseringsdepartementet) is processing Lærdal’s applications and considering discretionary grants for the reconstruction program, particularly through helping with management and skills support.

“These are funds which are not usually given after natural hazards and extraordinary events, but seen in the light of the scope of the fire in Lærdal we have opened these,” said secretary Anders Bals. “The ministry aims for a fast handling of such cases, but is dependent on the expenditure being documented or estimated with a certain probability, and that needs to be highlighted.”

While the bureaucratic wrangling continues, some rebuilding is well underway reported DN. Housing repairs have started, and there has been a boost for local labourers and craftspeople. “I think people can move into their new houses before Christmas,” said builder Johnny Sjøthun.

Not everyone happy
The municipality has explained its reconstruction plans to those affected by the blaze, and not everyone is satisfied with the proposed regulations for the fire area. Elderly couple Per and Anne Margrethe Aspevik want to build a house with as much area as possible on a single storey, but the regulations limit how large a base floor plan can be. It’s designed to create buffers protecting the old wooden houses of Lærdalsøyri, but the Aspeviks are angry they can only build a “dollhouse.”

They’re considering moving and rebuilding elsewhere. While they would still qualify for support from the municipality, the insurance companies would pay them less than if they stayed on the site of their destroyed home. “The difference is almost NOK 1 million,” Anne Margrethe Aspevik told DN.

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate