Grindavík Residents Can Expect Government Decision In Next Few Days


Government ministers met yesterday to discuss how the residents of Grindavík can be best served in the wake of an eruption that did significant infrastructural damage to the town last week.

As reported, two lava fissures opened up near Grindavík, on the south coast of the Reykjanes peninsula, last Sunday. Lava flow from these combined fissures caused interruptions in electricity and both cold and hot water, damaged the shortest route to the capital area, and set three houses on fire. Ground swelling and related seismic activity has also done widespread damage in the form of crevasses.

While Grindavík had been evacuated of its residents the day before, they now face an uncertain future regarding what steps the government should now take. Most residents of a recent community meeting want to be bought out, and for others, they would like to see the government take steps to ensure that their housing loans do not spiral out of control with the cost of maintaining property in the town.

Government to take action soon

Speaking to RÚV, Minister of Finance Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir expressed optimism in the wake of a government meeting held yesterday.

“This was an incredibly productive meeting,” she said, adding that she believes it important that Grindavík residents decide their own fate.

“We discussed issues related to Grindavík within an economic context and other details,” she said. “There’s a lot to cover and we’re doing that in the right order, which is why we are using each day to work on it.” Grindavík residents can expect an answer from the government within the next few days, she added.

A situation like no other

Grindavík residents have in fact been in a state of uncertainty since last November, when evacuations first began. While they had been allowed to return in the interim, the long-term future of the town remained uncertain. As such, some residents have opted to live elsewhere in Iceland until a clear answer from the government was forthcoming.

Þórdís said that she sympathised with their situation, but added that the context was important to have in mind.

“The situation in Grindavík is one we haven’t seen before,” she told reporters. “We have dealt with large projects and we are familiar with all kinds of natural disasters that have occurred around the country. But this situation we haven’t seen.”

The 1973 eruption of Eldfell

In terms of volcanic threats to human habitations, the last such disaster was arguably the January 1973 eruption of Eldfell, on the island of Heimaey in the Westmann Islands. At that time, lava and ash destroyed some 400 homes, displacing 5,300 people. For context, Grindavík is home to some 3,600 people.

Cooling operations to keep the lava from reaching the island’s harbour lasted for months, and digging operations for long after that. Cooling operations ended by July 1973, and by the end of 1975, the population of Heimaey was 85% of what it was before Eldfell erupted. Today, it is home to 4,500 people.

New Mayor Sympathises With Protesters

Reykjavík Mayor Einar Þorsteinsson has defended the right of Palestinian protesters to assemble on Austurvöllur square outside Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, adding that the protest has been peaceful and that the protesters’ cause is sympathetic to all.

In a Facebook post Friday night, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson called for tighter regulations for asylum seekers and increased border control. He posted a picture of tents pitched by Palestinian protesters outside Alþingi, saying that it was “incomprehensible” that this was allowed by Reykjavík authorities.

No formal complaint from Alþingi

In an interview with RÚV Saturday, Einar responded to Bjarni’s comment, saying that the city does not give permission for protests, as the right to protest is secured by the Icelandic constitution. He added, however, that in his opinion it wouldn’t be aesthetically pleasing if one group took over Austurvöllur square for weeks or months and stayed overnight in tents.

Einar, a city counsellor for the Progressive Party who took over as mayor on Tuesday, added that he had sympathy for the Palestinian families in question. “These are people who have lost family members and people who are waiting desperately for news of their loved ones and I think we all sympathise with this cause,” he said. “But it should be mentioned that the protests have been peaceful, which may be the reason that Alþingi hasn’t formally complained and the police has spoken positively about these protests.”

Limited to one tent

Einar went on to say that communications with the protesters had been good and that their license for camping had now been limited to only one tent, with no permission to stay there overnight. He said that other groups had since showed interest in camping, a regrettable development in his opinion, and that the city would revise its process in granting these licenses to make sure that Austurvöllur remains a forum for the public to protest and campaign for their causes.

The Palestinian protesters have been camped outside of Alþingi since December 27. The group has made three demands of Icelandic authorities. Firstly, to carry out family reunifications for residents of Gaza whom they have already granted visas. Secondly, a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. Thirdly, to stop the ongoing deportations of Palestinian people in Iceland and grant them international protection.