"When the rain comes, we look up to the mountains"
"I lost everything; the house, a new motorbike, and 15 years of photographic archives."
Before starting a night shift at the hospital, Ingrid was about to take a half hour nap when the local policeman came to her home and advised her to evacuate. She left with her cat to a friend’s home and had just lain down to rest when she suddenly heard the loud noise of the landslide, as if was from an action movie. Her house Berlin was completely destroyed that day.
"My father was ready to jump into the sea, but my thought was to run through the mud to safety. It felt as if it was a dream."
On the day of the landslide, school finished earlier than usual, so Brimir returned home half an hour before the big landslide. Brimir lives with his parents in a coastal building that has a pier. When the landslide occurred, his father had just come out of the shower wearing only underwear. He took Brimir and grabbed a lifebuoy as they ran out. They managed to run through the mud to a safer area where they were rescued by a boat.
"After the landslide I wanted to quit my job but my business partners encouraged me to go on."
Sævar owned a sandblasting workshop with specialized equipment that is not found elsewhere in Iceland. He had been slowly building his company over the last 30 years with tools he had imported from Europe. His warehouse was in a decommissioned shipyard by the old harbour, and he always thought it was the safest part of town. The landslide smashed through all his machines and tools, many of which will remain in the sea forever.
“We knew something big would happen. The signs were there. The river turned brown for 12 hours before the landslide.”
Haraldur has been driving a truck and a digger for almost a year now, first as part of the clean-up crew and then in an area where they are digging the foundations for a new housing project. When the landslide happened, Haraldur was on the outskirts on the north side of the fjord, clearing the road from a previous small landslide.
"I was born on a farm, so I am used to dealing with these kind of things. It will be coming down again in a few years... possibly in 10 years, maybe in 50 years."
One of the first large landslides fell above his home, sweeping past his house by just a few meters. The mud struck his neighbor’s home, which was lifted from its foundation and carried off towards the gas station. Due to the flooding, he was only able to return to his home a few months later.
"It was like in the movies. You ask me what the sound was like? I don’t know how it was. I don't remember... You just think about running."
Sigga was at home when the landslide surrounded her house, and was caught in the mud while running away from her house. She didn’t realize how deep the mud was until she sunk in all the way in to her chest. She injured her leg during her escape and needed surgery to recover.
Celia and Linus
"You have to realize that we live under the mountain, and that comes with some risk. It’s the quality of life with some risk"
Celia was renting a house that was permanently evacuated after the landslide. She lived at Landamót for the last 6 years, without knowing that she was living in a dangerous area. Linus had his home within a few meters from where the landslide struck. Now they are renovating their new home together in a safer zone. It’s the old bakery, one of the few brick buildings in Iceland that was built in 1914.
"After the landslides, I was worried about living in my house for the first couple of months, especially when it rained."
Illugi lives in an area where another landslide occurred earlier in the week. On 18 December, he was in his basement cleaning up after the flood. When the large landslide struck a few hundred meters away, the house started shaking and the electricity went off. He describes the landslide as something he can’t comprehend, something completely surreal. One of the things he remembers the most was the sound.
Elvar and Ingirafn
"The old carpentry shop was our workplace. We lost everything that we had there. But I am lucky I could escape just before the landslide took the entire building into the sea."
Elvar and Ingirafn lost their carpentry shop and all their tools, which they had put so much time into restoring. Elvar had to run for his life, as he was working there at the time of the landslide. After hearing the sound of the mountain collapsing, he ran out the door and escaped from the building just as it was being engulfed by the mud. Now, Elvar and Ingirafn continue their work in another workshop with new machinery, only a few meters away from the old one.
Jonathan and Ida
"We watched the landslide through our window. It happened as though it was in slow motion. We thought all my friends living there were dead"
Jonathan and Ida are the owners of Austurland’s Food Coop, a company that imports organic fruit and vegetables and delivers them to towns across Iceland. The entire week was a living nightmare for them. While their warehouse had to be evacuated as they were packing up orders, a mudslide flooded the gas station which they also manage. Their own home had to be evacuated. Finally, the big landslide closed off access to their warehouse for weeks. The produce was eventually salvaged by boat and used to cook meals in the community center.
"We had been evacuated from our house four times before, but this last time, we didn’t realize that we would never be coming back."
Oddný and her family evacuated their house voluntarily before the landslide; they could sense that it was pouring way too much. What they never imagined was that they would not be able to move back to the house. The building survived the landslide by just a few meters, but the area has now been deemed uninhabitable. They returned after the devastation to pack everything and move out for good.
Ólafía and Jóhann
"We only have warm and good memories of this place. We were like a big family with all the workers who used to work here."
The historical blacksmith workshop, which later became the Technical Museum of East Iceland, was founded by Jóhann Hansson, Ólafía and Jóhann’s grandfather. The smithery was built in 1907 and it was owned by the family for over 90 years. In its heyday, there were around 30 people working in the mechanical shop, making this place an important industrial hub but also a meeting spot in town. Ólafía and Jóhann spent their childhood in this building so its destruction has been hard for them. They hope to see a memorial for their grandfather and the work he did in the same place the workshop stood.
"If you’re an artist, you can deal with a loss of your art. You can make new art. I like to do new things. It's a reality check and it can be fun to get a grip on reality."
Pétur is an artist and the former director of the Technical Museum of East Iceland. In the summer following the landslide, he presented an exhibition at the Skaftfell Gallery, titled »Tinkering Ideas«. The show was a retrospective of over thirty years of work, yet so much of his work had been lost due to the landslide. Many of his works and materials had been stored in Turninn, one of the town’s oldest and most cherished buildings. Pétur describes the exhibition as the physical image of what was left.
“When the landslide hit the museum, all ongoing projects were washed away and the work involved in preserving the collection multiplied by about a hundred”
Zuhaitz had taken over Pétur’s position as the director of the Technical Museum of East Iceland around a year before the landslide. With the museum’s large collection of buildings and artifacts, he knew that the job would be a huge challenge. All the new plans and work-in-progress washed away in a split second as the landslide collapsed over four of the museum’s buildings, burying a significant part of the collection in rocks and mud. The work involved in salvaging the collection was complicated and heartbreaking. The museum buildings were destroyed, and exhibition spaces moved many meters from their original place. The process became like an archeological dig, taking months to recover, reclassify and clean thousands of documents, artifacts, and historic machinery.
"It was like being in a war, yet it was nature that was bombing us. Maybe we brought this upon ourselves. That much rain in such a short time might be a sign of climate change."
Elfa watched through her window as the landslide collapsed above her former home Garður. The house survived, but like her cousin Oddný, Elfa lost her house as the area where Garður stood is now declared uninhabitable. Elfa had been renting the house out for the last two years, but it remained so important to her that she was hoping to move back one day. Although the municipality compensated homeowners who could never return to their homes, the option to go back no longer exists.
"Framhús is a historical house. It was heavily damaged, but with care and perseverance, I managed to save a lot of its structure."
Halli lost his home to the landslide. The house was built in 1906 and he had spent the last 6 years renovating it himself. After being struck by a massive splash, the house collapsed. Halli plans to rebuild the house as close as possible to its original location, but a new waterway has been constructed through the area. Halli is not angry at the mountain for coming down, but more with what has happened in the aftermath. A child’s swing is the only trace left from his house at the site. The tree from which it hangs, was planted in the 1920s.
"For a second I thought that my family might have been killed… I believed they were dead and this shock is as real as real grief"
From a short distance, Alla witnessed the landslide fall above her house and immediately thought of her husband and two sons still inside. In the end, their home was not struck, as the landslide split into two and bypassed the house. Thankfully no one was hurt but in these first moments of shock and confusion, Alla thought she might have lost them.
"I climbed the highest thing I could find."
Bjarki, the local policeman, is also responsible for monitoring the slopes during high precipitation and snowfall so he can share this information with the authorities. He was working in the middle of the landslide area when the big one struck, and tried to find safety by climbing up the highest point he could find. After climbing up the steel tower by the old harbour, he watched the landslide come down along both sides of the tower, hoping it would not reach him.
"I like my home. I like my neighbors and I love the mountains even though they are hazardous. But I think that goes for anything... that’s what nature does. It gives and it takes."
Guðrún and her family recently moved from Reykjavík to Seyðisfjörður. The housing situation looked better and daily life seemed to be easier than in the city, or so she thought. After living in town for a year, it was a shock to learn that a new risk assessment had determined her house was located in the high-risk area. At a meeting with the municipality, they assured her that plans for protection were being put in place. Weeks later, the first the small landslide occurred close to her house. She didn’t wait any longer, packed her stuff and brought her family to a friend’s place.
“Our own house had been damaged and we had to move out, but that was secondary. We had to help everyone in distress and that is what we did.”
Davíð volunteers with the local search and rescue team. During the first days of the landslide, he escorted people in and out of the evacuation zone, was in charge of checking damaged homes, and refilled the power station with gasoline every 6 hours so that electricity was supplied to the communication systems. Like Davíð, many people from Seyðisfjörður had been personally affected by the landslides but also participated in the relief effort. During the most chaotic moments, Davíð was actually feeling the calmest. He’s happy with how everyone worked together during the trauma, and how they came together as a team.
"Every step I took I was thinking, “am I going to fall into a crack?” I had a bad feeling in my stomach. But I felt I had to go there to know how I felt about it"
Months after the landslide flooded her home, Lilja went up the slope to see where the landslide had come from. A big crater still hovers above town as a constant reminder of the week’s events. It's possible to hike up above the area and observe all the monitoring equipment that was put in place after the disaster struck. In June and July, lupine and other flowers blossom on the hillsides.
Þorgeir and Sigurbergur
“As we opened up the road with our machines after the landslide, we would be picking up lost objects that belonged to the houses that had been destroyed”
The Sunnuholt farmers have been working with diggers and trucks, earth, gravel and concrete in Seyðisfjörður since their youth. Now this work was certainly different. They participated in cleaning up the area of the first landslide, but when the big one hit, they became part of a ballet of diggers, trucks and emergency and rescue personnel that worked for months to clear the area of mud and rocks.
"The garden has to carry on."
Julia is an artist and landscape designer and has taken care of a harbour garden for many years, as part of making the new harbour area of the town beautiful and enjoyable. The landslide completely flooded the garden with mud. She was ready to give up when the workers of the municipality contacted her to ask if she wanted the garden dug up. It's kind of symbolic, she said, the garden has to carry on.
"I am worried about the people who work here. It is my job to make sure that they are safe"
Ómar is the operations manager of the Síldarvinnslunnar fish processing plant. On the day of the largest landslide, he went to the factory just before 3pm to turn off the lights. Normally during heavy rain, there’s a lot of water running down the slope, but at that time the waterfall Búðarárfoss had just stopped. Suddenly, he heard a loud noise and that is what he remembers the most. It was so loud that he thought the mountain was coming down over him. After this, it is uncertain if the fish factory will remain in this place.
Apolline, Keith, Csaba, Javier
Over a hundred meals a day, 7 days a week
From one day to the next, the kitchen staff from local hotels and restaurants became emergency relief workers in the rescue effort. They wanted to help in the best way they could, which was to cook for a lot of people. Based in the community center, the kitchen crew prepared meals for evacuated residents, Red Cross volunteers, the rescue squad, construction crews, engineers, and weather specialists, as well as the many more people that could not return to their homes for weeks.
"I took the neighbour’s cat in my hands and ran through the rain and mud"
When flooding from the first landslide started coming through Tóti’s windows, he decided to leave home and stay with his friend Sigga. Little did he know that it would not be any safer. Two days later another landslide struck the area around Sigga’s house, surrounding them in a sea of mud.
“I wanted to do something cheerful for Seyðisfjörður”
Svavar is a hobby gardener from Búðardalur in the west of Iceland. When he heard the news about the landslides, he thought that the town would need some flowers, so he started to seed them in his garage in February. Five months later, he borrowed a truck and travelled to Seyðisfjörður to plant them around landslide area.