Landslides set off drama, destruction

Bookmark and Share

Stories of fear and the destructive force of extreme weather were emerging Wednesday, as communication was re-established with areas of Jølster hit by sudden and massive landslides late Tuesday. At least one man is now officially missing and presumed dead after the car he was driving was swept off the road and into the lake below.

State highway crews faced massive repairs all round the Jølster area in the mountains of Sogn og Fjordane in western Norway on Wednesday. Here’s the remains of the Tverrelva Bridge on County Road FV615 near Hyen. PHOTO: Statens vegvesen/Even Hjelle

Police have now confirmed witnesses’ earlier reports that a vehicle was caught in one of the mud- and rockslides that thundered down steep mountainsides after sudden and heavy rain. There’s reason to believe, police wrote in a press release Wednesday afternoon, that the car was driven by a man in his 50s when it was caught in a slide that hit County Road 451 near Årnes on the south side of the lake Jølstravatnet around 9pm Tuesday.

“A man has been reported missing and we have therefore concluded that he was the one driving the car,” Wenche Hope of the West Police District told state broadcaster NRK. Search efforts are impeded by the enormous masses of mud and rock that crashed into the lake. The danger of more slides was also preventing a search from land, and police stated that it was not safe to send small boats or divers to the site.

As search and rescue efforts continued by air, the enormity of the natural disaster was becoming more clear. Slides set off by what residents called an “incredible” and abrupt change in the weather late Tuesday afternoon have occurred all around the western end of the scenic lake that’s a population tourist destination for Norwegians and foreigners alike.

(Story continues under the photo.)

Multiple landslides in the Jølster area were set off by sudden and torrential rain on Tuesday afternoon. This one covered County Road FV451 on the southern shore of the lake Jølstervatnet. PHOTO: Statens vegvesen/Jan Helge Albu

“It was absolutely surreal,” Atle Hamar, a state secretary for the Liberal Party who was home on summer holiday in the area, told NRK. Hamar was born and grew up in Vassenden on the southwestern shore of the lake, and still lives nearby. It has suffered severe damage with roads in and out of the small community washed away or covered by mud.

“We went from the finest summer day to the worst inferno, with torrential rain and landslides several places,” Hamar said, adding that he’d never seen such a “weather phenomonen.”

“The only thing to do was to head out in the boat and try to help evacuate folks on the north shore of the lake,” he said. “This was extreme energy that had gathered so much force.”

‘I was scared’
Another local resident, Anita Polyakova, was in the car driving from Førde to Stryn with her son Casper Roksvåg when a landslide made the road between Vassenden and Svidalsneset impassable. When they turned around to head back towards Vassenden, another slide swept over the road.

“Then I felt panic,” Polyakova told NRK from an evacuation center set up later at the local school. “We were trapped between two slides, and didn’t know whether a third would come down on us. I didn’t think we’d survive.”

None did, but the mother and son were trapped for nearly two hours before rescuers came in a boat and got them out. “It was no fun,” young Casper Roksvåg told NRK. “I was scared.”

The main highway running through Jølster, the E39, is closed indefinitely pending repairs. This photo was taken at Svidalsneset. PHOTO: Statens vegvesen/Jan Helge Albu

The sheer suddenness and speed of the slides shook up everyone involved. Around 150 people have been through the evacuation center, sharing stories of how mud, boulders, large trees and other debris crashed through their yards. Raymond Lillemo told NRK how he literally ran for his life from the slides and floods that destroyed his neighbourhood Tuesday afternoon.

Lillemo and others also spoke of the horrific noise that he at first thought was more thunder but “just wouldn’t stop. The noise was so extreme.” He said the actual river that runs into Jølstravatnet swelled to twice its size after the sudden rainstorm. “I just had to throw my mobile phone in my pocket and run to save my life,” he said. “The river was behind me with big logs. I ducked behind the house to our neighbour. I was very scared.”

Mobile phone coverage was knocked out as well, making it difficult for authorities to organize initial search and rescue efforts. Geologists were called in to help determine the stability of areas where more searching, and repair work, is needed.

Roads still closed
The state highway department warned Wednesday afternoon that it “would take time” before any of the roads washed out by the slides and floods could re-open. “Clean-up efforts are underway at several sites,” wrote Statens vegvesen, but not even the main E39 would reopen, with no estimates for when it could. “Huge masses of debris must be cleared away, but it looked like the bridge over the river has withstood the onslaught.”

Other areas, including County Road FV451 from Vassenden to Kjøsnes, were still too unstable. The bridge on FV491 was washed out, but would be replaced by a temporary culvert and stones. Long detours on the E39 remained in place with extra ferry service that would run through the night. Berglund