Archive for Sunday, May 2, 2010

Weary Icelanders ask what next after meltdown, volcano

May 2, 2010

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— It took Sigurdur Thorhallsson more than a decade to turn a patch of flat land wedged between glacier and ocean into a field fit to grow fodder grass. It took Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano just minutes to wreck it.

Iceland’s financial crisis had already tested the 41-year-old farmer’s dream by driving up repayments on his bank loan. But it was a flash flood triggered by the volcanic eruption last month that devastated him.

“It was very emotional for me. You could say it broke my heart, to see it destroy my land,” said Thorhallsson, using a trailer to haul away some of the tons of mud, silt and volcanic ash left behind on the field when melting glacier ice sent floodwaters racing down the mountain.

It is seemingly endless work, but Thorhallsson is stoically determined to clean up the mess. Like many other Icelanders, he’s trying to salvage a better future from the wreckage of the country’s recent past.

The last few years have been traumatic for this tiny North Atlantic nation of 320,000 people.

A roaring economic boom that saw Iceland produce a crop of international jet-setters with a penchant for Alpine chalets and private planes was followed in 2008 by a spectacular bust. Suddenly, affluent Iceland was an economic basket case in need of financial life support from the International Monetary Fund.

“It has been a weird time,” said Valy Thorsteinsdottir, 26, who recently returned from a trip to southeast Asia that showed her just how her country’s image has changed.

“Usually I’m the first Icelander people have met. You used to get, ‘Iceland, that’s amazing: Bjork, hot springs.’ Now people say, ‘Iceland? Isn’t it bankrupt?”’

And just when Icelanders thought things couldn’t get any worse, Eyjafjallajokull awoke with its first eruption in almost 200 years.

An initial blast last month forced 500 people temporarily from their homes in the area, 75 miles east of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. A second, bigger eruption that began April 14 shook the global economy. Fears the drifting ash cloud could damage jet engines grounded planes across northern Europe for almost a week, stranding millions of people and costing the aviation industry almost $2 billion.

Ironically, Iceland itself was initially little affected. Ashfall and flooding hit a small, sparsely populated area, and as winds blew the ash cloud east toward Europe, Iceland’s international airport stayed open, although it later closed when the wind switched direction.

But Iceland’s travel industry fears the bad publicity and aviation uncertainty will hit their summer tourist season. National carrier Icelandair say bookings for April were sharply down on expectations, and hotels report a spate of canceled bookings.

Thorsteinsdottir was stuck for several days in Bangkok, and found strangers suggesting — sometimes jokingly, sometimes in anger — that the gridlock was her fault.

“When I was holding my passport at the airport, I deliberately turned it the other way so people couldn’t see where I was from,” she said. “I was sick of people blaming me.”

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