Critics blast latest digital breakdown

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Hundreds of people in Jølster and the emergency crews trying to help them this week had to cope with a digital collapse, after extreme weather and a series of landslides left them not only without power, but also mobile phone coverage and Internet access. The government is now demanding better preparedness from telecoms firms.

Landslides occurred in at least five areas around Jølster on Tuesday evening after the area was suddenly hit by a severe thunderstorm and cloudburst. Smaller slides like those seen at the left in this photo also caused problems for residents and tourists alike. PHOTO: Statens vegvesen/Jan Helge

“We are clearly vulnerable to problems, and it’s therefore very important that we do what we can to prevent them,” Nikolai Astrup, the government minister in charge of the state’s massive push towards digitalization, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday.

Around 1,300 people live in the scenic mountain area around the lake Jølstravatnet, located in the county of Sogn og Fjordane. It also attracts lots of tourists every summer, and nearly all were without phone or online communications from the time the first lightning and thunderstorms hit (around 4pm on Tuesday) until late Wednesday afternoon. Several remained  without mobile service after both telecoms firms Telenor and Telia reported that several of their base stations were knocked out. Large areas of Jølster, Førde and even Gloppen to the northeast lacked coverage.

Telenor also reported two cuts in its fibercables, and that fully five base stations were out of order. Telenor spokesman Roald Orheim told news bureau NTB that “crisis phones” were set up for those lacking communication.

‘Severely’ limited communication
“The big problem here is the lack of mobile coverage,” Dag Fiske, sheriff in the Sunnfjord district, told NTB, “so everything has to go over the emergency network. That severely limits communication. We’re getting lots of calls from people who complain they still can’t get in touch with their families.”

As work continued through the night to reopen roads and restore services after Tuesday’s sudden summer storm and resulting landslides, Astrup conceded that it’s “difficult to ensure 100 percent (service) in all situations.” The state still owns a majority stake in Telenor, which remains largely in charge of Norway’s mobile and online infrastructure, and Astrup claimed the government is putting “clear demands” on both it and other providers.

“We as a society are becoming much more dependent on this (digital) technology,” Astrup told NRK. “That means that when major incidents occur, we’re more vulnerable and the consequences are greater. Secure systems and their robustness must become better than they are today.”

Some roads reopening already
As questions rose over whether Norway already relies too heavily on digital services that clearly remain vulnerable, the state highway agency Statens vegvesen expected to be ready to re-open the main E39 highway through the area by midday. Road crews had already managed, by early Thursday morning, to remove enough mud and debris from several blocked roads that escorted convoys of cars could get through to communities that had been isolated. Many of them had been trapped between slides, and several people spent the night in their cars.

Among vehicles trapped were three ambulances that were out on other calls when the slides hit. “That was a bit of good luck within a bad situation, because then folks (who were also trapped nearby) had access to health care throughout the night,” said Fiske.

Police were also planning to send mini-submarines to the area of the lake Jølstravatnet where a car was swept off the road near Årnes. A man in his 50s believed to be driving the car is missing and presumed drowned.

Also complaints over a lack of police assistance
NRK reported that while residents gathered at an evacuation center praised volunteers and organizations like the Red Cross for their help, many were angry that only two or three police officers were dispatched to the area. They claimed that was too few to handle the dramatic situation, and they also chided police for sending out a press release Wednesday morning that there were no indications anyone had been injured or killed by the slides. Police later confirmed that a man was missing, even though witnesses had reported Tuesday evening that they’d seen a car swept into the lake.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg planned to visit the area on Thursday and speak with local officials about the importance of preparedness. She also stressed that more must be done to improve it, because the weather is changing and extreme storms are coming more often. That’s likely to fuel more calls from climate activists to rein in Norway’s oil industry that produces a large portion of the country’s carbon emissions that in turn are blamed for climate change. Solberg, who supports the oil industry along with most other politicians, pointed to the country’s geography.

“One of the biggest challenges around Vestlandet (Western Norway) is that the beautiful mountains are also very steep,” Solberg told NTB Wednesday evening. “That means they’re more vulnerable to slides. With the extreme weather we’re getting, it will become more challenging.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund