Winter Weather Wreaks Havoc

Snowstorms in south and southwest Iceland wreaked havoc on Saturday, leading to road closures, the opening of additional emergency centres, dozens of calls to ICE-SAR to rescue people from cars stranded on roadways, and flight disruptions, RÚV reports.

See Also: It’s Going to Be a White Christmas

Roads around south and southwest Iceland—including the pass over Hellisheði and Mosfellsheiði heaths, Þrengsli, and around Kjalarnes peninsula—closed on Saturday, with teams struggling in low visibility and dense snow to clear a path, even as abandoned cars on the roadway slowed the process considerably.

“Yes, there’s been plenty to do,” said ICE-SAR’s information officer Jón Þór Víglundsson. “Not long ago, there were reports of cars on Mosfellsheiði and rescue teams were called out to deal with it. There were as many as 15 cars. Right as they were getting there, we got news of cars on Kjósskárðsvegur that were in trouble. So this is basically the situation in the southwest, from Borgarfjörður to east of Selfoss. People are finding themselves in trouble.”

Indeed, roads in and around Selfoss were impassable after a night and morning of heavy snow and Grétar Einarsson, foreman of the Icelandic Road Administration in Selfoss, also noted that cars that had gotten stuck on roadways were slowing the clearing process significantly—as were vehicles following directly behind the snowplows as the roads were being cleared.

But while he urged people to stay inside until roads had been sufficiently cleared, Grétar remained jolly. “People asked for Christmas snow and their prayers were clearly answered!”

Most rescue call-outs in Grindavík

Rescue teams responded to dozens of calls all over the country, but the most calls came from around the town of Grindavík, located on the southern coast of the Reykjanes peninsula.

“We’ve got snow accumulation, wind, sleet, driving snow, hailstorms, some thunder—it just doesn’t quit,” said Bogi Adolfsson, who leads the Þorbjörn Search and Rescue team in Grindavík. The team’s main challenge on Saturday was helping people were stuck on Rte. 43, also called Grindavíkurvegur, which closed that morning and stranded a number of people, mostly foreign tourists, who were trying to make their way back to the capital. The Red Cross opened an aid station in the afternoon to provide shelter for those who’d been rescued.

Shortly after noon on Saturday, there were a reported 40 cars stuck on Grindavíkurvegur, many of which were driven by tourists hoping to go to the Blue Lagoon. “A number of tourists have plans and there’s a steady stream of people headed toward the Blue Lagoon,” said Gríndavík detective superintendent Ásmundur Rúnar Gylfason. “They’ve just decided that they’ve got to go to the Blue Lagoon.” Many people en route to the popular destination were not aware of the road closure, and so police and rescue teams were stationed at the intersection with Reykjanesbraut to turn them away, but that caused traffic snares as well.

Further east along the southern coast, in Þorlákshöfn, about a dozen people spent much of the day at the emergency centre that had been opened in the primary school. Many of these individuals had had to spend the night there. “These are people who ICE-SAR rescued from their cars and brought here,” said school principal Ólína Þorleifsdóttir, who said they tried to make those who were stranded comfortable with blankets, bread, cookies, and coffee.

Flight disruptions

Snow accumulation on the runway at Keflavík necessitated the airport closing temporarily for both departures and landings. All flights to Europe were delayed due to weather on Saturday morning, some for upwards of four hours. A flight from Stockholm, Sweden had to land amidst lightning during the latter half of the day.

Both Icelandair flights from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður in the Westfjords had to be cancelled on Saturday, as did the first flight from the capital to Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. Flights from Reykjavík to Akureyri in North Iceland were delayed and one long-delayed flight from Akureyri to Reykjavík took off five hours after it was scheduled, only to be forced to return to Akureyri half-way to the capital due to weather conditions.

As of 7:00 PM, Icelandair had cancelled all flights until the morning, that is, 11 flights to North America, a flight to London Gatwick, and another to Copenhagen. All foreign passengers and those on connecting flights were put up in hotels at the airline’s expense. Icelandair PR representative Ásdís Ýr Pétursdóttir said delays could be expected when flights resumed.

This article was updated.

Cold Spell Continues: Emergency Shelters Open All Day Today

An icy Reykjavík City Pond.

The City of Reykjavík has activated an emergency plan and will keep emergency shelters open around the clock today, Vísir reports. An unhoused man hopes that the city will continue keep emergency shelters open 24 hours a day for the duration of the cold spell, predicted to last ten more days at least. The cold weather is expected to have wide-ranging effects.

The unhoused hope for extended shelter

As reported by Iceland review earlier this week, temperatures in Iceland have hovered well below 0°C over the past week – and if weather forecasts prove accurate, temperatures are expected to drop even further this weekend and the next.

In response to the cold weather, the City of Reykjavík has decided to keep its emergency shelters open over the next 24 hours (the shelters are normally open from 5 PM to 10 AM). The city will then assess the situation, going forward, tomorrow. Speaking to Vísir, Heiða Björg Hilmisdóttir, Chair of Reykjavík City’s Welfare Council, stated that City of Reykjavík would be reviewing the possibility of expanding shelters:

“It’s our priority that no one is made to sleep outside or is turned away at night. If only there were more organisations like Samhjálp, Icelandic Church Aid, and the Icelandic Red Cross that were willing to help, that would be very helpful.”

Heiða pointed out that approximately 300 people had availed themselves of emergency shelters in the city this year, of which a hundred came from other municipalities. Other municipalities must get involved: “We’re learning, and we need to listen and evaluate and do as well as we can, but other municipalities besides Reykjavík need to involve themselves.”

Ragnar Erling Hermannsson, who has been unhoused for some time, hopes that emergency shelters will be kept open around the clock while the cold spell lasts:

“I’m going to see if they keep the shelters open around the clock beyond today,” Ragnar observed. “It makes you wonder if this is just some kind of showmanship by the city. In reality, they have a choice between two or three people dying today or keeping the shelters open while the cold lasts.”

A difficult time for small birds

Aside from the dangers that freezing temperatures pose to people, the cold spell also makes it difficult for small birds to find food and running water.

“It’s hard to find food in this frost,” Hólmfríður Arnarsdóttir, Director of BirdLife Iceland, told Vísir. “There are only a few hours a day of sunlight, so there is less time to look for food and more time that must be dedicated to keeping warm, i.e. the entirety of the night.”

Hólmfríður stated that it is extremely important for people to feed the birds and make sure that they get water while the cold weather persists: “It’s best to feed them twice a day: at dawn and at dusk.”

More pools to be closed?

On Tuesday, Rangárveitur, which manages the hot-water supply in three municipalities in South Iceland, published a press release to notify residents that the hot-water supply was nearing its limit. In light of the cold, the local authorities, on the advice of Veitur, decided to close three public pools in the area – in Hvolsvöllur, Hella, and Laugaland.

The cold could also affect swimming pools in the capital area. Steinthór Einarsson, Director of Operations and Services at ÍTR (Sports and Outdoor Activities), told Vísir yesterday that three public pools may need to be closed:

“There are three pools, Vesturbæjarlaug (West Reykjavík), Sundhöllin (Downtown Reykjavík), and Dalslaug (Grafarholt), which we may need to close due to the cold. I just received a message stating that they don’t need to be closed tomorrow (Friday, December 16), but we reassess every day. As there is a very cold forecast ahead, it’s impossible to say for certain.”

Emergency Shelters Not Able to Cope with High Numbers of Unhoused People

homelessness in reykjavík

Hrafnhildur Ólöf Ólafsdóttir, nurse and head of the City of Reykjavík working group on homelessness, has stated in a recent interview with RÚV that following a large increase in the use of homeless shelters in the last two years, the system can no longer cope with the large demand placed on it.

According to the latest information from the Welfare Council, some 87 women and 214 men remain unhoused in Reykjavík. 30% of this group use emergency shelters, with around another 50% in residential facilities.

Read More: No Daytime Shelter for Homeless Men

Hrafnhildur stated to RÚV that the crisis had many causes: “It’s connected to many factors, especially the housing and rental market, and reduced access now to guesthouses, hotels, and hostels, which we had access to during the pandemic.

Emergency shelters in Reykjavík are now consistently at and above their limits, compared with 2021 where utilization of shelters sat between 60-80%, and in 2020, when it sat around 30-50%.

Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that around a third of Reykavík’s unhoused come from other municipalities.

Hrafnhildur stated: “It’s not that people are choosing to come to Reykjavík, we are simply the only municipality that offers these services. Other resources need to be developed and allocated elsewhere, too.”

See our Ask Iceland Review on homelessness in Iceland for more information.

 

 

No Daytime Shelter for Homeless Men, Despite Protests

homelessness in reykjavík

Emergency shelters for homeless men will remain closed during the day, according to the Director of Reykjavík’s Welfare Council. The city will continue to focus on the buildup of more permanent housing resources for the homeless. “We’re literally on the streets, no matter the weather,” one homeless man told Vísir.

A sit-down strike at a Grandi emergency shelter

Yesterday, Vísir.is reported on the numerous homeless women who seek refuge at the Konukot emergency shelter. The shelter is overcrowded most nights, too small to meet demand. In an interview with Vísir, Heiða Björg Hilmisdóttir, Director of Reykjavík’s Welfare Council, stated that the Council was currently completing an appraisal of Konukot to establish whether more space was required.

“We’re also considering providing more halfway homes, so that individuals would first be allotted a room where they’re offered necessary support, prior to those individuals moving into dedicated apartments.”

Despite the congestion at Konukot, homeless women can seek shelter at Icelandic Church Aid during the day, while homeless men can only seek shelter at Samhjálp between 10 AM and 2 PM. With winter fast approaching, a group of homeless men organised a sit-down strike at an emergency shelter in the Grandi neighbourhood of Reykjavík on Wednesday to protest.

Vísir spoke to a few protesters, who voiced their indignation at being turned out of emergency shelters during the day, in all kinds of weather and physical states. Among the protesters was Davíð Þór Jónsson, one of the founders of Viðmót – an organised interest group on the rights of drug users. Davíð was diagnosed with pneumonia last week but has had no choice but to roam the streets in the cold.

“Our only refuge during the day is Samhjálp, which is open between 10 AM and 2 PM. After that, we’re literally on the streets, no matter the weather.” Davíð Þór wants homeless men to be offered comparable shelter as Icelandic Church Aid offers women. “There are plenty of talented people who are homeless; something good could be made of their talents if they had appropriate shelter.”

Seeking to provide more permanent solutions

Despite such concerns being raised, Heiða Björg Hilmisdóttir told Vísir that the emergency shelters will remain closed during the day: “There are always places of refuge for everyone, but the emergency shelters will not be open. The city libraries are always open. People can sit down, have some coffee, and relax,” Heiða told Vísir, explaining that the city conceives of emergency shelters as temporary resources.

“The ideology behind emergency shelters is that you can stay there overnight if you don’t have a place to stay. But it isn’t housing. You don’t live there. This is a temporary option, but we don’t want people to settle down. We haven’t emphasised an increased number of emergency shelters, having chosen to focus on providing more permanent housing.”

According to Heiða, the City of Reykjavík has allocated 130 apartments to homeless individuals since the beginning of last year. “Where you can settle down and make a home for yourself, which is not something you can do at an emergency shelter.” According to Vísir, 61 individuals are on a waiting list for housing in Reykjavík. A third of those who seek out emergency shelters are legal residents of other municipalities, which means that they are not eligible to apply for housing in Reykjavík.

As noted by Iceland Review, the City of Reykjavík released a report in 2021 that “found 301 people were experiencing homelessness in the city. This is a decrease of 14% since 2017. According to data from the report, 71% of the individuals were men, 29% were women, and most were between 21 and 49 years of age.”

Reykjavík Emergency Shelters To Stay Open All Day During Cold Spell

Konukot emergency shelter

Reykjavík’s four emergency shelters will stay open all day December 3-7, due to the forecasted cold spell. The Iceland Red Cross’s on-wheels harm reduction team Frú Ragnheiður will be checking up on their protegés, making sure they have a place to stay at night and have warm clothing.

The Reykjavík Welfare Committee activated their contingency plan for people battling homelessness due to the forecasted cold spell. Under normal circumstances, shelters are only open from 5 pm until 10 am the next day. If people spend long hours outdoors in this cold, there’s a risk of hypothermia and accidents.

The four shelters collectively have room for 63 individuals. All shelters will focus on creating a cosy atmosphere indoors so that as many as possible will stay there instead of going out into the cold.

Reykjavík Response and Counselling team, which aids people battling homelessness, substance and mental health issues, is working with Frú Ragnheiður to get information to users who might be in unsafe situations and might need to use the emergency shelters. The city’s also working closely with the National Hospital’s emergency rooms, the capital area police force, the Red Cross and campsite operators.

Frú Ragnheiður is the Red Cross’s on-wheels harm reduction team, helping people battling substance use issues in a specially equipped medical reception vehicle. They posted a request on social media asking for warm clothing for the people they help, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. They received all the donations of warm clothes and down coats they need, and will not be requiring more as they don’t have space to store the clothes that aren’t in use. If people want to support their work, the Red Cross accept monetary donations. During this cold snap, the Frú Ragnheiður team will be checking up on the people they meet, making sure everyone has a place to stay.