A Swiss Mountain May Fall. So a Village Is Forced to Evacuate.


The threat of the mountain above the tiny Swiss village of Brienz has loomed for centuries.

But state geologists and engineers warned on Tuesday that parts of the mountain were dangerously close to collapse. And the roughly 85 people now in Brienz and in the path of a possible landslide or mountain collapse were told to evacuate by Friday night.

Geological engineers starting monitoring the situation on the mountain closely in 2017. In recent weeks, they have seen movement accelerate in the more than 70 million cubic feet of dirt and rocks that make up the parts of the mountain that could fall.

“It’s clearly a difficult situation, but we are prepared and trained for this,” Peter Beyer, the governor of the region, told affected villagers in a hastily organized community event on Tuesday night. “Even if we hoped that what we were training for would never come to pass.”

Although scientists say the mountain could come down any moment, they cannot fully predict what is going to happen, Stefan Schneider, one of the engineers in charge of efforts to monitor the rock slide, told the community on Tuesday night.

The most likely scenario is a rockslide, with rocks tumbling down the slopes but stopping before they hit the village. Another possibility would be the entire mountain side coming down in one long stream like “viscous honey,” Mr. Schneider said.

But the most dangerous outcome, he said, would be the mountainside coming down in one quick event, which could wipe out houses and the church of the village. Some the buildings have stood on this spot for centuries. Mr. Schneider says this is the least likely result.

Unlike many natural disasters in Europe these days, this one is not directly linked to climate change, city officials say. The mountain side has been slipping a little bit for years, but has accelerated recently.

Village administrators believe, however, that the danger is only temporary and that once the mountain has moved, the village will remain in tact. They have asked residents to take only items that insurance could not replace — like photo albums or heirlooms — and to prepare for weeks or months away from their homes.

One resident, Renato Liesch, wants a quick outcome, so he is praying for rain.

Rain, he says, would make it more likely that the mountain comes down quickly, so he can move back home again.

He has packed up his tools, his wood sculptures, the stamps he collected when he was a boy and the antlers that remind him of his most successful hunting adventures, and he’s ready to make the temporary move to his small hunting shack out of harm’s way.

Last week, the municipality, which has been updating residents about the situation for years, posted a list of moving companies that residents could use. But nobody took advantage of the list until the evacuation was announced in Tuesday, said Christian Gartmann, who speaks for the municipality of Albula, which encompasses Brienz and six other villages.

Brienz has up to 60 residents who live there year-round. (Because of its bucolic charm, the village’s population increases during the vacation season.) The village is working with neighboring towns to find private lodging close by.

“No one will have to sleep in a hotel or a gym,” said Mr. Gartman, adding: “That does not exist with us.”

Inside the medieval church of St. Calixtus, a 500-year-old altar was being evacuated.

“It sounds easier than it is,” said Simon Berger, who is with the canton cultural heritage authority. Preparations for possible evacuations have taken months, but the authorities wanted to leave the altar in the church until the very end. “We left it there as long as possible out of consideration for the locals” Mr. Berger said.

Mr. Liesch, who grew up in Brienz, says that for most of his life, the fact that the village was under threat wasn’t a big deal to him. “We always knew subconsciously that it is a precarious situation,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. Still, he said, he never expected to be evacuated.

Now that the time has apparently come, he is hoping that his house is spared. But he admitted the outcome was not in his hands.

“It’s like a tornado, it goes where it wants, whether you are in its way or not,” Mr. Liesch said. “Same with the stones coming down that mountain: If they land badly, they will destroy my house.”



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