Icelanders take volcano in relaxed stride

April 17, 2010 12:00 am

, HVOLSVOLLUR, Apr 17 – It takes more than a giant volcano to get Icelanders worried.

Fire erupting through glaciers? Seen it before. Black ash blanketing Europe? Fate. Nighttime evacuation from remote farms? Minor inconvenience.

Life under the volcano goes on much as ever.

"Why panic? You can\’t control it," said a philosophical Peter Peterson, 42, as he prepared his farm for the next onslaught from the enormous Eyjafjallajokull volcano looming over his land.

The ash-spewing eruption earlier this week shut down much of European airspace and sent flash floods from a melted glacier into farming communities surrounding Hvolsvollur, a village 85 kilometers (53 miles) east of the capital Reykjavik.

On Saturday an ash cloud from the volcano towered awesomely over Hvolsvollur\’s bleak, windswept landscape. Locals said a change of wind direction likely presaged a dumping of ash on top of the floods.

Already, two farms next to Peterson\’s had suffered serious damage. He had only escaped because a rocky escarpment behind his house channeled the silt-laden flood waters clear.

But he didn\’t feel triumphant.

"It doesn\’t matter where you live in Iceland," Peterson said. "Some places have earthquakes, others volcanoes. They all have something dangerous. If you live in Iceland you have to expect that."

Such sangfroid could be partly explained by the character of people living on an island formed from eruptions and pounded relentlessly by north Atlantic gales.

But another reason for that calm is meticulous preparation.

"There is no panic," said Kjartan Thorkelsson, local police chief in Hvolsvollur.

He showed off a 210-page emergency plan that has been distributed to residents, spelling out in detail what to expect depending on the location of an eruption and how to respond.

There\’s even a live camera perched on a neighbouring hill watching the glacier for signs of volcanic flash floods. Locals can tune in on and check for themselves whether disaster is imminent.

"Generally they get about two hours warning," Thorkelsson said.

Peterson said he, his wife, son and daughter had been told to evacuate every night this week because of the risk of melted glaciers striking their fragile wooden home.

"It\’s OK — the main thing is we are allowed to be here and work during the day," he said.

Another farmer, Gudmundur Sigurdson, 60, licked at an ice cream in Hvolsvollur\’s burger bar, contemplating the volcanic mushroom cloud that pulsed white, grey and black to the east.

"We are generally calm in Iceland. We don\’t think too far ahead. Today, tomorrow, that\’s it," he said.

"Anyone in their lifetime will see at least two volcanoes, a few earthquakes, snow blizzards, sea storms," his son, 22-year-old Haraldur Evar Gudmunson, added.

Challenged to name something that could agitate a typical Icelander, the father looked perplexed. Eventually, he grinned: "When our sheep gat sick!"

Police chief Thorkelsson also had trouble naming what might make him lose sleep.

Could he be stressed by the widely held theory that this week\’s eruption is only prelude to an infinitely more powerful explosion from neighbouring Katla volcano?

Thorkelsson, who like all police here goes unarmed, puffed thoughtfully on a cigar.

"It might be a lot bigger," he said. "Or it might be a little bigger." He smiled. "Or not at all."

Cigar smoke blew up into a thick, sweet cloud over his head.


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