Project Management Institute

Lessons from a harsh land

project management and disaster preparedness in Iceland

Project Management and Disaster Preparedness in Iceland

by Gunnar Torfason

NATURAL HAZARDS ABOUND in Iceland. The remote island nation is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, with not infrequent eruptions, earthquakes and hazardous flooding. The climate also plays a dramatic role in the life of the inhabitants. Iceland's changeable weather depends on atmospheric depressions crossing the North Atlantic. Coastal areas tend to be windy and gales are common, especially in winter. When factors such as temperature, precipitation, wind, angle and irregularities in the land surface and slope are unfavorable, landslides and snow avalanches can result.

How successfully have we in Iceland used the tools of project management in dealing with the harsh nature of our country?

If we look at the process of a natural disaster, we see that it has three phases: the event itself (usually sudden and of short duration, although lava flows from volcanic eruption can continue for months); a planning period in which future rebuilding and prevention is addressed; and the actual rebuilding/resettling period. These phases and the emotional responses they evoke in the population affected by the event are shown in Exhibit 1.

Photo: Erling Arnason This house, half-buried in a lava flow, bears silent testimony to the dramatic events of January 1973, when the entire poplulation (5,300) of the Icelandic island of Heimaey had to be evacuated in only a few hours

Photo: Erling Arnason
This house, half-buried in a lava flow, bears silent testimony to the dramatic events of January 1973, when the entire poplulation (5,300) of the Icelandic island of Heimaey had to be evacuated in only a few hours.

In a paper delivered at the Nordnet conference held in Reykjavík in 1987, Dr. Morten Fangel discussed the difference between to “start” and to “start up” a project as well as different procedures in project initiation (“To start or to start-up,” Proceedings of the Nordnet-Internet-PMI Conference in Reykjavík). Fangel presented three scenarios, illustrated in Exhibit 2.

Project Start-up Process. The platform for running the project is developed by a systematic project start-up. The formal project start may be at the beginning of the start-up process, or the start-up process may be partly or fully carried out before the formal project start.

The project posed by the occurrence of a natural disaster falls into three main phases. In the graph above, the level of activity is indicated by the graphed line. In each phase, the emotional responses of the population affected must be taken into consideration

Exhibit 1. The project posed by the occurrence of a natural disaster falls into three main phases. In the graph above, the level of activity is indicated by the graphed line. In each phase, the emotional responses of the population affected must be taken into consideration.

Project Smoothly Crystallized. Here the necessary understanding, plans and cooperation is smoothly crystallized over a long period of time. This crystallizing may be informal and lead to a project start. This is relevant in a highly political environment, where the process cannot be catalyzed during a start-up process.

Simple Project Start. From earlier projects the participants represent a well-oiled team with knowledge of similar project tasks and plans for these. This partly makes the project a routine task. Consequently, it may be sufficient to start with a single planning meeting and then mostly concentrate on the project work.

In the setting of a natural disaster, where the need for the project is sudden and action cannot be delayed, it would make sense to have a “simple project start” from a prepared platform every time. However, unless project management is planned for, that is not usually the case.

Management of Natural Disasters: Two Cases

The need for better project management can best be demonstrated by examining how Iceland has dealt with the sudden and imperative projects initiated by natural catastrophe.

1973: Volcanic Eruption in the Westmann Islands. This dramatic volcanic eruption began the night of 23 January 1973 on the only inhabited island of the Westmann Island group, Heimaey. In an outstanding operation, the entire population of some 5,300 people was moved to the mainland in a matter of hours without any accidents. The eruption, which lasted for about five months, eventually buried a third of the residential houses under up to 30 meters of lava. Another third were heavily damaged, and a third were little damaged. Half of the industrial and other business structures were destroyed. A large part of the island was covered with pumice sand.

The main tasks that were dealt with in a solid project management manner were:

   Transport of all inhabitants to the mainland in less than 10 hours

   Salvage and transport of the majority of the machinery from the fish processing and main manufacturing firms

   Operation to strengthen and support houses, especially roofs, to support the burden from pumice sand

   Operation to prevent frost damages to boilers and plumbing in dwelling houses and firms

   Assessment of material damages on private and public real estate

   Deceleration and stopping of the lava stream by cooling with water, thus saving the harbor and part of the town center

   Rebuilding of private and public real estate and reestablishment of the fish processing firms and other manufacturing firms in an unbelievably short time, due to exceptional help from Scandinavian and other countries.

Things that did not succeed, on the other hand, included the poor handling of reimbursement of Heimaey residents for their losses. About two weeks after the eruption, the Icelandic Parliament passed a law establishing a National Catastrophe Fund that would compensate for damages due to natural disasters, among them the Westmann Islands eruption. The assessment of the material damages was based on the value of the Icelandic Krona on 1 November 1973, but the average house-owner could not collect the compensation until about six months later. Since the annual inflation rate in that year was approximately 30 percent, this meant a cardinal financial loss for the persons concerned.

Today there is a strong society in the Westmann Islands, which is located in one of Iceland's richest fishing grounds. The population has not yet reached the level it was before the eruption, however, because the previous inhabitants were spread all over the country and many families have settled in different places on the mainland.

This eruption did not claim any casualties, and the devastating flow of streaming lava was at a pace slow enough after the first weeks so that rescue teams had some leeway in their work. But while a volcanic eruption often gives disaster response teams a longer time in which to act, the destruction due to earthquakes and avalanches occurs almost instantaneously. Yet in the following case of a snow avalanche, we can see the same sequence of events and the same decisionmaking processes at work as were used to evacuate and rebuild Heimaey.

1995: Avalanches in Súðavík. Since Iceland began documenting snow avalanches in the 13th century, approximately 700 people have lost their lives in them, including 146 in the 20th century. These extensive casualties occur because fishing villages and towns have emerged on the narrow strips of flatland at the base of steep mountains guarding the fjords. Traditional wisdom held that farms or ranches hit by an avalanche were not rebuilt in the same location; sad to say, we have not lived by this wisdom in modern times.

Legislation and the political environment regarding hazard zoning, avalanche research and avalanche defense structures have unfortunately not always ensured a goal-oriented and secure procedure in the event of a natural disaster. These things have changed dramatically for the better during the last two years.

Súðavík, a small fishing village in the northwestern part of the country, had a population of approximately 300 in January 1995. The village is located on a narrow strip of land at the foot of a rather steep mountainside. Early on the morning of 25 January 1995, a snow avalanche 400 m wide and 1200 m long shot down the mountain and hit 20 of the highest placed houses, demolishing the majority of them. Estimated at up to 65 km/h when it hit the houses, the velocity of the avalanche built to an estimated 150 km/h as it fell 100 m in altitude. This avalanche claimed 15 lives, eight of them children. In the late evening of the same day a second avalanche fell on another part of the village, demolishing an additional five houses, but with no further casualties because the houses had been abandoned.

At the 1987 Nordnet conference in Reykjavík, Morten Fangel used these three figures to illustrate the difference between the “start” and the “start up” of a project. If processes are not in place for orderly, systematic start-up, a project can formally start—but a long, unproductive time will pass before progress toward goals is actually made

Exhibit 2. At the 1987 Nordnet conference in Reykjavík, Morten Fangel used these three figures to illustrate the difference between the “start” and the “start up” of a project. If processes are not in place for orderly, systematic start-up, a project can formally start—but a long, unproductive time will pass before progress toward goals is actually made.

At present, the start-up process in the aftermath of a natural disaster is somewhat muddled, with conflict and false starts. Even when the platform for running the project is welldeveloped, stakeholders' unfamiliarity with project management may create problems

Exhibit 3. At present, the start-up process in the aftermath of a natural disaster is somewhat muddled, with conflict and false starts. Even when the platform for running the project is welldeveloped, stakeholders' unfamiliarity with project management may create problems.

Compared with the volcano eruption in the Westmann Islands, there was a huge difference regarding the occurrence of the disaster. Here the blow came instantaneously, without any warning or time to escape, so the loss of life could not have been prevented.

Looking at the situation in the first weeks and months after the avalanche we can sort out the stakeholders, look at the major challenges ahead, and consider carefully the different available options.

The main stakeholders in the project of rebuilding after the snow avalanche in Súðavík probably were the local government; the house owners; the authorities (various ministries such as finance); the insurance bodies including private insurers, Iceland Catastrophe Insurance, and the Landslide and Avalanche Fund (covering undamaged houses in risk areas and remainder of damaged houses); and consultants and contractors.

Major challenges of the rebuilding project were to guarantee housing for all inhabitants, in a minimum of time, safe against natural hazards, within a reasonable budget and with social wellbeing. Also laws and regulations guaranteeing the most favorable solution for the inhabitants, the local government, and the entire Icelandic community had to be legislated. Appropriate financing of the project was also a challenge.

From an outsider's point of view, there seem to have been at least three options: the building of avalanche defense structures; relocation of the village some 1700 m further south, outside the hazard zone; or moving the village, man and mouse, to the nearby town of Ísafjörður, a 20-minute drive away.

At this point, project management tools and techniques would have been useful in analyzing and evaluating all possibilities. One must be able to bring all the interested parties together and have them participate in the discussion. In this case, there were several barriers to agreement:

   Many stakeholders with widely different interests

   No coordinating party of substantial power

   Laws and especially regulations did not cover the necessary procedures

   Those who paid the compensations did not directly supervise the spending

   Decisions seemed often to be made from an emotional point of view and not always in the interest of the public.

When people in Súðavík had in some respects regained themselves after the initial shock of the disaster, they started to look toward the future. However, the options were not discussed in a cool and logical manner, instead emotions were allowed to lead the way.

The third option, moving the whole village to the nearby town never came into actual consideration by the inhabitants, even though the nearby town offers better educational facilities, better medical services, a broader social service, and more varied employment opportunities. (About 90 percent of the working people in Súðavík are employed by the only local fish-processing firm. Fish processing firms are sensitive to fluctuations in fishing and international market development and changes in ownership are not uncommon.)

According to the laws and regulations, the option of building avalanche control structures is always No. 1. But in Súðavík the inhabitants and their local government were against this option from the beginning. Emotional reasons led to a request to the authorities not to choose this option. The construction of deflecting walls was analyzed, and although it might have been less expensive than the chosen solution, 15- to 20-meter- high earth walls would have left a major scar in the scenery and were considered by some to be a major environmental accident.

Option No. 2, relocating the village some 1700 m to the south was the winning solution, as the land had already been obtained for future expansion of the village. This solution now leaves the local municipalities with some 50 abandoned dwellings of varying age and quality, plus many sheds and huts. This real estate, now owned by the local government, comprises a ghost town left for an unknown future purpose.

In the case of Súðavík we have about three and a half years of total project lifetime: Phase 1 covered about 2 months, Phase 2 about 8 months, and Phase 3 about 36 months, with the different phases slightly overlapping.

Reducing Future Risks

In Iceland we have good programs for search and rescue, with trained rescue dogs, medical first aid and critical incident stress assistance, but the political decisionmaking factor always comes as a surprise. Still, by preparing for disasters by good planning and even by issuing a compulsory project handbook we can build a platform that shortens Phase 2 and, hopefully, also Phase 3. As part of this preparation, project managers should be chosen who have experience and education commensurate with their tasks and responsibilities. Such preparation takes a certain burden, both material and psychological, off the local government, the authorities, and last but not least, the afflicted people. Better planning should lead to better utilization of all resources and thus lead to a lower budget. Also, the difficulty of arriving at political decisions in the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding a natural catastrophe could be lessened by:

   Steering the rebuilding process more into the hands of the financing bodies

   Government authorities launching a working group that initializes a thorough planning process for some of our known natural disaster risks

   Authorities appointing a coordinating body with a project manager independent, both financially and emotionally, of all the main stakeholders.

Returning to Fangel's descriptions of the project initiation process, if we try to draw up a similar picture for the start-up of rebuilding after a snow avalanche or a similar disaster, it may take the form of a “Muddled Start-up Process.” The platform for running the project is developed by preparing a project handbook with WBS for the events that are most likely to happen as a result of a natural disaster. Nevertheless, the start-up may be muddled because many of the stakeholders are unfamiliar with project management ideas and way of thinking and are politically biased. (See Exhibit 3.)

ALTHOUGH WE ARE NEVER able to practice and completely prepare for catastrophic events, we can plan for and practice project management in catastrophic project start-up. The manner in which things were dealt with after a 26 October 1995 avalanche fell on Flateyri, killing 20 and causing great property damage, is very promising indeed. In this incident, decisions were made calmly and time was taken to study all the available options.

While we hope that we will never need these or similar preparations, let us be prepared. ■

Gunnar Torfason is project manager/managing director for VGT Consulting Engineers Inc., Reykjavik, Iceland. He can be reached at vgt@itn.is.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • February 1998

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