Prime Minister Erna Solberg spent much of her weekend visiting flood-ravaged areas in the mountains of southern Norway, many of them extremely popular tourist magnets. Residents are hoping she’ll follow up more quickly on promises of rebuilding aid than her government has after last winter’s fire in Lærdal, which now has also been flooded.
The devastation in such places as Flåm, Aurland, Voss, Lærdal and Odda was overwhelming, and the stormy weather was still so bad on Saturday that Solberg’s delegation had to drop plans to fly in and out of the flood-hit areas and be driven instead. That took lots more time than normal, because so many roads are washed out out as well as train lines.
The vital and heavily used train line between Oslo and Bergen (Bergensbanen) finally reopened on Monday, six days after flooding at various areas along the route. Sections of track between Dale and Voss were underwater but large quantities of rock have now shored up the rails, and several overhead lines have been repaired.
The Bergen-Oslo line is popular with tourists who connect to the Flåmsbanen, often described as one of the most scenic train rides in the world. Portions of its tracks were washed out by the flooding last week, with 43 passengers needing to be evacuated last Wednesday.
Residents of the industrial town of Odda, at the southern end of the Hardanger Fjord, met Solberg in tears, as they cried over the complete loss of homes and businesses. In Lærdal, on the Sognefjord, residents could show their prime minister how they’re suffering through their second catastrophe in a year, after strong winds turned a single house fire into an inferno that swept through the town known for its historic wooden buildings.
Solberg listened and tried to comfort but residents of Lærdal have been disappointed over the government’s failure to offer quick financial relief. “We believe the state needs to move faster in processing claims and providing relief from the state’s natural disaster fund,” Geir Berge Øverland, vice mayor of Lærdal, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after a meeting with Solberg Saturday evening. “I oriented her about how the flood has hit us and about the extremely difficult situation Lærdal is in with two catastrophes in less than a year.”
Solberg responded that it was “enormously sad” and that Lærdal and other flooded areas must be rebuilt as soon possible. Complications arise, she noted, in separating claims that can be covered by insurance companies and those by state disaster aid. Flooded farming areas also have different claim processes to go through. Solberg’s government minister in charge of Norway’s waterways, Tord Lien, also visited Odda and other flooded areas and said much the same, remaining remarkably non-committal about how much financial relief could be expected and when it would come.
Further complicating the situation is a tendency in Norway’s narrow mountain valleys to build and rebuild in areas vulnerable to flooding. Arable land for farming and level land for development is at a premium in much of the area, and geologists called for bans on building as close to rivers and fjords as has been traditionally done in the past. They’re demanding restrictions on building, whlle local authorities often grant permission to residents to rebuild despite danger of future flooding.
Rising temperatures and effects of climate change have prompted meteorologists to suggest that Norway can only expect more torrential rain, storms and flooding in the years to come. It’s difficult for local communities to come to grips with what that means, even as they see first-hand the effects of a week of flooding in late October.
Tourism industry officials, meanwhile, were confident they’d be ready to receive more visitors not just next summer but during the rest of this autumn and winter as well. Some hotels had to be evacuated last weekend but officials claim there was no danger to life or health and flood damage will be repaired.
“Our travel industry players are very professional in taking care of the tourists who are here and those who will keep coming,” Ståle Brandshaug, travel director for Visit Sognefjord, told NRK. He doesn’t think the recent waves of extreme weather will scare tourists away.
“This is clearly a catastrophe for many of those involved here,” he said. “But there’s also extreme weather in many areas of the world, and we’ve never promoted nice weather in Norway anyway.”