I am trying to master a word. Eyjafjallajokull. Go on, give it a go. Rolls off the tongue. Of course, in Iceland, it does, and the locals humour and encourage me when I try to drop it into a sentence. I’m in Iceland as a guest of the Integrated Disaster Risk Management Society and NORDRESS – The Nordic Centre of Excellence on Resilience and Societal Security for the 2017 IDRiM Conference. It’s a return to a country that is a bit special; I first visited in 1991, and rode around it, on a push bike, with my good friend Stephen.
You may remember when Eyjafjalljokull erupted in 2010. Small Icelandic volcanoes don’t normally make international news, unless they are the National football team at Euro 2016, but this one did, as it succeeded in shutting down the European airspace for 6 days, and ending up costing the global economy nearly 5 billion dollars.
What, of course, we didn’t see, and I have discovered in speaking with people here in Iceland, was the impact on the local communities. No two volcanic eruptions are the same, as I have discovered, and often dependent on a range of conditions. They produce a range of impacts from lava flows, ash clouds, and glacial floods, where the glacier caps of the volcanoes melt, and send tsunami like waves down flood plains, washing out everything in its path. Not far from Vatnajokull, we stopped at the remains of twister girders of a bridge washed away in the 1995 flood. Massive steel girders, twisted like fencing wire. The power is disturbingly immense.
Eyjafjalljokull was an explosive eruption, pumping ash into the air. As the Jetstream, the global circulation currents were right above the volcano, the ash was carried off to Europe, and created havoc. What comes out of a volcano is effectively cut glass. You can imagine what that can do to plane engines, as well as car engines, and lungs. But equally, ash was deposited all around the local area. This caused evacuations, farmers had to bring their livestock indoors, and health problems, through respiratory diseases. The eruptions also brought tourists, and the Icelandic authorities had to manage people wanting to have a look.
The Icelanders are exceptionally well organised. From their national plans, through to local arrangements. These arrangements, which Gudrun Johannesdottir, from the Ministry for Civil Protection, outlined for me, are no nonsense, no frills. People work together. For a country with just 350,000 people, with some major risks, they just get that you need to be organised for these things. As Gudbrandur Orn Arnarson, the Coordinator of the Iceland Search and Rescue Association told me, 4000 people, over 1% of the population are members of the search and rescue service. When you see the terrain, the isolation, and the weather, you realise you cannot rely upon an ambulance turning up in 7 minutes. This is community resilience. Equally the Red Cross has 18,000 members, 5 % of the population.
They have had some major events to deal with. Not only the various volcanic eruptions, but also earthquakes. Significant earthquakes in the south in 2008, really shifted the way that they thought about managing disasters; that they needed to be managed locally, with support and coordination from the centre. And also for the need for long term recovery plans for each municipality. Meeting with Ásta Stefánsdóttir, the mayor of Astborg and Víðir Reynisson the district emergency management officer, I realised what a grasp they had on long term consequences. They also used their recovery plan to deal with the 2008 financial crisis. As Vidir said, its all about focusing on the consequences, and coordination.
Equally, some devastating landslides in 1995, killed 34 people in Westfjords, and had significant community impacts. There is a strong emphasis on psycho-social support, which I learned from Berglind, Edna, and Kristiborg from the national hospital’s trauma team. Their focus has been on using the best available evidence to establish and support local trauma teams, trained in Psychological First Aid and Psycho-social support. They also respond to the small stuff, because they helps skill people for the big stuff.
Tourism is a major challenge for emergency management (and everything else). The growth in the industry is massive, and the country is struggling to keep pace. The exciting and interesting places, also happen to be the high risk areas. There is a lot of concern about people being killed or trapped in an eruption or flood, and the local areas not having the capacity to deal with it. In the hotel in Vik, we saw the advice posted in the foyer on what to do in a volcanic eruption. One of the things I didn’t know was that eruptions, due to the increase in ash, can cause increased lightning strikes. They really are grappling with this as an issue.
What has struck me in speaking with people is the quiet pride they take in their arrangements, and how they go about things. They know they aren’t perfect, and they recognise that, and openly admit it, but they seem to get a whole lot right. And you have to, when you have so few resources to draw upon. This is resilience.
The extraordinary Icelandic composer, Olafur Arnalds, with Dagny Arnalds, 1995