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Lava-hit Icelandic town: "We don't know when we can rebuild"

Lava-hit Icelandic town: "We don't know when we can rebuild"

| Text: Hallgrímur Indriðason, Photo: Marco Di Marco, Aptopix

Grindavík has been largely empty since 10 November. The 4000 inhabitants of the Icelandic fishing town on the south coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula had to move as a lava corridor formed partly underneath the town, causing strong earthquakes and a lot of ground movement.

Back in November, an eruption was considered to be imminent. Big cracks formed throughout the town not only on roads and on the ground, but also on – and even in – houses. Around 20 houses were ruined.

Things calmed down and after a few weeks, people were allowed to stay at home overnight but were told they might have to evacuate at very short notice. An eruption came much later, on 18 December, and only lasted two days. 

On Saturday 13 January, around 200 people were staying in Grindavík as the civil defence announced the town would be evacuated in two days because of earth movement and the formation of new cracks. 

Immediate evacuation

But at 3 am the next morning, seismic activity increased. It was clear that an eruption was close. The town was evacuated immediately. At 8 am an eruption started, and lava flows reached the outskirts of Grindavík. 

Grindavík burned house

One of the houses in Grindavík that burned down. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters.

Three houses burned down. Barriers built before the eruption steered lava away from Grindavík, preventing further damage. But one crack opened between the barrier and the town, and it was lava from that crack that reached the town. The lava flow lasted three days.

Apart from cracks in the town itself, the activity damaged electric lines and plumbing all over the town. The latest eruption reached the main hot water pipe which meant there was no hot water in houses in Grindavík. The power company managed to fix this in most of places before further damage was done. 

Latest eruption a big shock

The mayor of Grindavík, Fannar Jónasson, says the eruption on Sunday 14 January was a big shock and a step backwards for rebuilding plans. 

Grindavík harbour

Grindavík is an important fishing harbour. This picture is from happier days, before the eruption. Photo:

“It was deeply disappointing that an eruption started inside the fortifications. We had started plans to move people back to the town, start school again next autumn and then gradually the companies would restart their operations. The safety we had started feeling when the fortifications were being built has disappeared for now.”

The town is built on fisheries since there is a lot of fish to catch south of Iceland. The harbour is one of three top fishing harbours in Iceland, after Reykjavik and similar to Vestmannaeyjar. 40 per cent of all cod caught near Iceland goes to Grindavík harbour. Two of the six largest fisheries companies in Iceland are based in Grindavík. Jónasson says the town is very convenient for fisheries. 

“We are close to the international airport which makes us a good place to produce fish for export. So there are a lot of things that are convenient for us.” 

According to Jónasson, the fishing companies have a lot of equipment in Grindavík so it’s not easy for them to rebuild it somewhere else. 

“The fishing companies are determined to keep going with their operation there but while we have eruptions and other constant seismic activity it is really hard to make proper plans. We need things to calm down since the fortifications are not secure enough for us to make plans to rebuild.”

Municipality run from Reykjavik

Children have not gone to school in Grindavík since the activity started and it is now clear that school will not start there until next autumn. Jónasson says other municipalities have welcomed the Grindavík children warmly. 

“For the schools, it went really well. 95 per cent of the children got access to school within three weeks throughout the country, which was incredibly fast.”

It is of course strange to run a municipality where no one lives. All the Grindavík municipality staff now work at the Reykjavik City Hall. 

Reykjavik city hall

The Reykjavik city hall has received the Grindavík municipal administration with open arms. Photo: Björn Lindahl

“What has helped us is that we were already providing a lot of service online. But we had to find solutions for other services, like social service, culture, sports and so on by other means. 

“We got a facility downtown for interviews if people want assistance, with the help of the Red Cross. There we also have choir practices, church gatherings and social gatherings for young people and the elderly. And then we’ve used Teams for meetings.”

Tourist bookings went down, then up again

When nature starts roaring in Iceland it affects tourism - sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. This time, both things happened, according to Jóhannes Þór Skúlason CEO of The Icelandic Travel Industry Association. 

When the seismic activity started in November, new bookings fell drastically, mainly because of foreign media speculation about what might happen. Cancellations, however, were rare. 

“Bookings in November and December were far fewer than in a normal year,” Skúlason says.

When the eruption took place just before Christmas, it was easier to give correct information to the media and there was less uncertainty. 

“Bookings after that have gone well and people are not as worried about eruptions as before. There are still effects from that, but they are less than we feared.” 

Skúlason says he does not expect the latest events to affect tourism in a significant way.

The Blue Lagoon

The biggest uncertainty revolves around The Blue Lagoon, one of the best-known tourist attractions in Iceland, which is close to Grindavík. 

The blue lagoon

The blue lagoon is half way between Grindavík and Keflavík Airport. It was closed on  9 November after the eruption started, but reopened on 8 January. Photo: Blue Lagoon Iceland.

“The Blue Lagoon is one of the most valuable trademarks in Icelandic tourism. When it’s not on the market it has a huge effect on tourism. It’s like closing the Eiffel Tower. The Blue Lagoon is a ‘bucket list’ item - people who go to Iceland want to go to the Blue Lagoon.”

Skúlason also points out that the Blue Lagoon employs 800 people, pays 6 billion ISK (€40m) in taxes to the Icelandic state and is also a shareholder in other lagoons and hotels. 

“Tourism is a chain, and the Blue Lagoon is a really important link in that chain.”

Skúlason says that now, since geologists believe eruptions in the area will last for a few years, the future has to be discussed. It is considered unlikely that an eruption would take place in the Blue Lagoon area, and an eruption on that active crack can be spotted 4-7 hours in advance. 

“If that is the case, we have two options. One is to simply close it because it is difficult to know when it can be opened again. In my view that’s impossible - an operation like that can’t just shut down. 

“The other option is to form clear procedures between The Civil Defence and The Blue Lagoon for when it has to be evacuated. And also, if an eruption takes place and it’s clear that it will not affect the lagoon, it could be opened within days, not weeks as it has been now.”

Uncertain future

Inhabitants in Grindavík are facing big uncertainties. Bryndis Gunnlaugsdottir, a Grindavík local, told the news website that many parents do not know if they can pay for two homes, and what financial support they get. 

“How can you go home if your child can’t go to school and people at the same time are experiencing unsafe ground conditions? We have support, but not enough to make long-term plans,” she says. 

There are increasing demands for the state to buy out the inhabitants who want to rebuild their lives somewhere else.

There is only one event that can be compared to what is happening in Grindavík – the eruption in Vestmannaeyjar in January 1973. Then, like now, lava flowed into the town which had to be evacuated. The eruption lasted almost six months. 


Two women survey the destruction of  Vestmannaeyjar after the 1973 volcanic eruption. Photo: Christian Bickel/fingalo/Wikipedia.

Some people moved back, others did not, but even though the number of inhabitants never reached what it was before the eruption there is now a settlement there nearly the same size as Grindavík. Jónasson says there are many similarities. 

“As bad as the situation was in Vestmannaeyjar – worse than in Grindavík now in some respects – they managed to start again. And now it is a strong municipality, with a big fishing industry.” 

But there is still one big difference. 

“The eruption in Vestmannaeyjar had an endpoint so the community could be rebuilt. Even though the activity has been ongoing for four years now, starting with earthquakes, scientists say that this seismic activity is not over on the Reykjanes peninsula. 

“Therefore, we don’t see a time when we can start planning our rebuilding. That makes things very difficult for us. We would like to be able to say that everything is over like in Vestmannaeyjar, and we can start rebuilding, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.”

Broken barrier

The picture above shows how close Grindavík is to the lava flow. The barrier that was built to stop it runs across the image. On the left, the mayor of Grindavík Fannar Jónasson.


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