Flateyri is a beautiful village on a narrow strip of land at the edge of the sea in the Westfjords. It juts out into the sea and is at the base of steep, treeless mountains that are covered with snow for much of the year.
Flateyri in summer
On this day in 1995, a huge avalanche buried homes and killed 20 people in Flateyri. This disaster was the second deadly avalanche in the same region in ten months. In January, the people in the fishing village of Suðavík suffered a devastating avalanche. Unfortunately, sixteen residents died there and then twenty more in the neighboring village of Flateyri on this day in October.
The people living in avalanche-prone areas became more prepared and cautious after the February disaster. Winter began dumping snow in the mountains and after three days of storms, the snow had accumulated in the mountains. The wind started howling and people in areas of the Westfjords, with potential of being in danger, were evacuated. Electric poles snapped like twigs. A few avalanches occurred on the 26th of October with the howling wind shaking the tall mountain tops. One avalanche came screaming down the mountain and killed 18 horses in Langidalur later that day.
At 4 am on the 27th, the residents of Flateyri were sleeping. Suddenly, they were awakened by a horrendous roar as ice, rocks, and snow came crashing down the mountain. Seventeen homes, only one of which was thought to lie in the avalanche danger zone, were buried by the avalanche that came from the mountain called Skollahvilft
Friends, family, and neighbors frantically began searching for the missing people in the total darkness. A few people dug and dug until they escaped from their scary burial.
The United States military helicopters and the Icelandic Coast Guard were dispatched to the area. About six hundred US soldiers and ÍS Coast Guard along with special Rescue Dogs arrived to assist the locals. In eleven hours of searching, twenty people were rescued and survived. The last person pulled out alive was an 11-year-old girl. Her older sister was not saved and is counted among the dead. Two long and grueling days later, all the other missing family, friends, and neighbors were found. The total death count was twenty souls.
A memorial to those who lost their lives now stands next to the church. Just over 200 people now live here in the fjord called Önundarfjörður south of the larger town of Ísafjörður. They still process fish here and there is a very strong sense of community. Though many left Flateyri, some families remained. The bodies could not be buried in the village cemetery because of the frozen ground and heavy snow. They had to be kept in the morgue in Ísafjörður until the ground thawed. They were then transported to Reykjavík and buried there.
In 1998, a special A-shaped earthen dam was built up the mountain to deflect future avalanches. The structures are two deflecting dams that form a wedge or A-shaped structure in the mountain side. There is a small catching dam that extends between the two deflecting dams in the lowermost part. They are about 15-20 meters tall and 600 meters long. The catching dam is 10 meters high and 350 meters long.
The avalanche protection dam has already been a life-saver for the people in Flateyri. In February of 1999, only one year after the dams were completed, a large avalanche from Skollahvilft came crashing down into the eastern side of the dam and the avalanche went into the sea. The next winter, in March, another huge avalanche from the mountain called Innra-Bæjargil slammed into the western and the village was protected again. Other smaller avalanches have occurred and it is great that they have this protection in place now.
Avalanche in Icelandic is SNJÓFLÓÐ (Snow Flood).
Flateyri is in the Westfjords in northwest Iceland.