Flateyri is a small fishing village located on a narrow strip of land at the edge of the sea in the picturesque Westfjords, in northwest Iceland. The village of only 300 has been a trading post since 1792 and saw its heyday in the 19th century when it became a major whaling center and base for shark-hunting. The fishing industry has always been vital for the villages in the Westfjords, and Flateyri had successfully married this tradition with tourism making the village a very popular destination for foreign sea anglers.
Like so many Icelandic villages, Flateyri is located on the seaside at the base of a steep, treeless mountain called Skollahvilft. The mountain is but steeper than usual and remains covered with snow for much of the year making it susceptible to avalanches. However, no major incident had occurred until one October morning in 1995.
It was 4 am on the 27th, and the residents of Flateyri were sleeping. Suddenly, they were awakened by a deafening 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 under snow and rocks. Local residents immediately attempted a rescue effort, but the snow had erased all landmarks and they had trouble locating where the houses were. The darkness made matters worse. Twenty people were killed that day. It took search parties two long and grueling days to locate all the bodies.
The 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 where sixteen residents lost their lives. After that incident, people living in avalanche-prone areas became more prepared and cautious. As winter began the following October, high winds in the West Fjords prompted evacuations across the region. Hundreds of electric poles were snapped by the winds like twigs. Several avalanches occurred the day before the disaster at various places. In Langidalur, a herd of 18 horses were killed, while another slide destroyed a storage building in Sugandafjor.
Two deadly avalanches struck the Westfjords in 1995. One hit the town of Súðavík in January, killing 14, the other struck Flateyri in October, killing 20. Photo/GVA
In 1998, a special A-shaped earthen dam was built up the mountain to protect Flateyri from future avalanches. The structure consist of 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. The walls are 600 meters long and 15-20 meters tall, while the catching dam is 10 meters high and 350 meters long.
Only a year after the dam was completed, in February of 1999, a large avalanche from the mountain came crashing down into the eastern side of the dam and went into the sea. The village was saved. The next winter, in March, another huge avalanche from the mountain slammed into the western wall and the village was protected again. Other smaller avalanches have occurred regularly, and each time the protection wall has deflected the snow safely away from the village.
A memorial to those who lost their lives.