Search resumes for more slide victims

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Two weeks after a deadly landslide swallowed homes in a small town northeast of Oslo, efforts were resuming this week to find the last three victims still missing and presumed dead. Survivors have been moving back to undamaged homes, some reluctantly, while both state and local officials promise ongoing support.

A member of the Home Guard forces that helped in search and rescue efforts in Gjerdrum surveys part of the massive slide that left at least seven dead and three missing. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

“You are not alone,” the president of the Norwegian Parliament, Tone Trøen, told those gathered for a memorial service earlier this week at the local church in Gjerdrum. “Our homes should be our safe base, where we seek refuge. That’s why it’s so extra hard when a crisis unexpectedly hits our homes. Then we must be each other’s source of security and help.”

Trøen and Prime Minister Erna Solberg, both from the Conservative Party, attended the service along with Gjerdrum Mayor Anders Østensen of the Labour Party and Vice Mayor Leir Haugland of the Center Party. All are promising to help those left homeless, to find answers as to how and why the slide occurred at 4am on a dark and stormy night December 30, and to rebuild the small rural town that’s more recently grown to become home to commuters working in the Oslo metropolitan area.

Growth plans suspended
Some of the ambitious local growth plans are already being curtailed. Newspaper VG reported on Thursday that another new housing project in the Nystulia area of Gjerdrum township’s center in Ask has been halted because of “serious doubt” over its long-term stability. Local officials’ own planning and building permit process is also under review.

Construction work on the new housing area called Vestvang 2 began last autumn. “The slide has raised serious doubt over whether the municipality itself has had good enough reason to approve this new project,” Berit Andriansen, leader of Gjerdrum’s own planning, surveying and building department, told VG. Now local officials want new evaluations from geologists and technical experts, as probes continue into the cause of the recent landslide that’s been widely called “catastrophic.”

State and local experts are behind the probes, including Norway’s waterways agency NVE. VG also reported this week that the slide may have started several hundred meters south of the residential area hit hardest, and spread north until it was under several rows of homes.

‘Retrogressive’ slide
Geologists and environmental advocates have earlier worried about how clearing forests to open land for development can affect underground drainage and waterway patterns. A creek running through the area targeted for residential development was also re-routed and put into pipes that reportedly have leaked.

Gudmund Eiksund, a professor and leader of geotechnical issues at NTNU in Trondheim, told VG that one current hypothesis is that the slide began at a low point in the area and spread upwards, loosening parts of the ground so that clay-like mud between layers of the ground loosened and become fluid. Most such slides involving the mud known as kvikkleire are called “retrogressive” slides: starting at a low point in the terrain and ultimately setting off a slide higher up, in the opposite direction of the slope.

Another slide hit the area January 5 as search efforts that recovered seven bodies continued. The search had to be immediately called off, out of consideration for the safety of search and rescue crews who’d been working around the clock since the slide hit six days earlier.

Reluctant to return
Residents of nearby homes that avoided damage and where the ground is now determined to be safe have been moving back, many relieved but some skeptical. “We don’t want to move back,” Nora Pran told newspaper Aftenposten, who leads the homeowners’ association for 60 condominiums located 150 meters from the edge of the slide.

Pran, age 59, and her husband moved from Oslo to Gjerdrum nearly four years ago and had found the peaceful and scenic area “close to perfect,” until tragedy struck just before New Year. Now, she said, “the only thing certain is that everything is uncertain.” She, her husband and all neighbours remained in evacuation at the nearby Olavsgaard Hotel through last weekend, when others were given the all-clear signal to move home. Several have returned to their homes since, but still others like Mona Løvdal Larsen, age 57, hope their homes will never be defined as safe again. They appreciate all the support and donations of everything from clothing to toys and strollers for children in families that lost all they owned. Larsen, however, told newspaper Dagsavisen last week that she’s more keen on starting over in another location.

Experts and police, meanwhile, thought it was at least safe enough to resume the search to find the three victims still missing. “I’m very relieved about that,” Mayor Østensen told state broadcaster NRK. “That’s been the most important thing, to find the missing.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund