"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.
Cordula and Bennet
“When I called my son Bennet and told him that Breiðablik had come off its foundation, that was the first time he ever heard me cry.”
Cordula received a phone call from Seyðisfjörður on December 15, the day before her mother’s 85th birthday in Germany. A mudslide had come down the mountain behind Cordulaʼs house and had flooded the ground floor. She needed to come straight away. Travelling to Seyðisfjörður under pandemic conditions was no small feat. After an international flight, Coronavirus testing, and then a domestic flight, Cordula finally arrived on the morning of December 18, just as her house had floated off its foundation towards the fjord. She ran straight into the mud not recognizing how deep it was, and captured the photos that became the first images published by the media of the ominous scene. Cordula is a carpenter and had been working steadfastly towards restoring Breiðablik for two decades. The house was supposed to be her future and the mudslide had suddenly washed away all those years. During the two months following the mudslide, Cordula laboured on-site to recover what material she could salvage before Breiðablik was finally torn down. The empathy and support she received during this time gave her the strength to start over again, and she plans to rebuild Breiðablik at her new address: Austurvegur 19.
"I was born on a farm, so I am used to dealing with these kinds 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
“I heard a sound, and thought at first it could be the trucks going by. But then it got louder and the building started to vibrate. I know now that was probably debris starting to hit the building, and then I knew I had to get out immediately.”
Elvar and Ingirafn worked in the old carpentry shop that belonged to the Technical Museum of East Iceland. It was a historical building from 1897 and they had just spent the summer months putting up a new roof. On December 18, Elvar was working there when the landslide came down and destroyed the entire area. He ran from the carpentry shop just as the building collapsed. A year after, Elvar and Ingirafn continue their work with new machinery in another carpentry shop, but miss the atmosphere and the history that was embedded in their old workshop.
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. During that fateful week, one mudslide flooded the gas station that they manage and another mudslide just passed by their home, which they had to evacuate. Their warehouse also had to be evacuated while they were packing up vegetable boxes. Their business came to a near halt for months and suffered massive financial losses. Almost two years later, Jonathan and Ida have managed to keep the business together, as well as reopen the gas station diner. Jonathan believes the liability for their company, as well as the safety of the community, has not been adequately protected. He asks why a defense system hadn't been installed twenty years ago when the threat of landslides had been identified.
"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.
“The community hall became the centre of the relief effort, even though we were technically not designated to play that role. But it immediately just became the help center of course, because it´s a friendly and open place. That is what we´ve made Herðubreið to be.”
In the hours following the landslide of December 18, every single person in the community received a text message to check-in at the Herðubreið community hall before evacuating the town entirely. Sesselja and Celia who manage the Herðubreið, also had their homes in the landslide zone, but had to put aside their personal problems to help the civil defence and the Red Cross set up the space in the midst of a power outage. The building was completely filled with people, and chaos broke out as no one really knew how to handle the situation. From then on, the Herðubreið became a crisis center. Emotions were running high across the community, from fear to confusion to anger, and for a long time Sesselja and Celia took to the front lines, making sure all people were sheltered, fed and comforted. Christmas was an especially difficult time, when most relief workers from across the country returned home to celebrate with their families and a team of local volunteers were left to plan Christmas dinner at the Herðubreið. One month after the landslides, the Herðubreið was still offering meals for up to eighty people per day. Sesselja says that although everyone was trying their best in a difficult situation, “we have to do better next time.”
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.
“My first thought was: How am I going to explain this to my kids?”
Halli lost his home to the landslide. Framhús was a historical house built in 1906 and he had spent the last 6 years renovating it himself. After being struck by a massive splash caused by the landslide, the house collapsed. Halli was able to save parts of the original house and had hoped to rebuild the home as close as possible to its original location, but a new waterway was constructed through the area. He is not angry at the mountain for coming down, but he’s disappointed with the coldness of the recovery process and the decisions that were taken afterwards. By cleaning up the site too well, a part of history was erased. A child’s swing is the only trace left from his house. 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.
“It was like something inside me knew that something was going to happen. When I was at work, I was checking the windows and looking up at the mountains. The day the big one fell, I was constantly at the window. It was even bothersome to the people I was working with.”
Lilja’s house was one of the first homes to flood during that fateful week. She was in constant battle against the mud and water in her basement. Lilja wore the same uniform all week – boots and rain trousers. Finally, the rescue team came to the house and told her she must leave. Later that day when she heard “a crazy, roaring sound,” and her reaction was to run towards it, towards her friends who were running away from it, their faces grey and covered in mud. Revisiting all the memories is stressful, she says. Her heart beats faster and her cheeks flush from the heat.
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.