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Cablegate: Iceland: Government Gets Flying Colors for 6.3 Earthquake

VZCZCXRO4714
PP RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHDA RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHIK RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHLN
RUEHLZ RUEHPOD RUEHROV RUEHSR RUEHVK RUEHYG
DE RUEHRK #0102 1611835
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 091835Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY REYKJAVIK
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3671
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
RUEHCAA/GEOLOGICAL SURVEY DEPT OF INTERIOR WASHINGTON DC

UNCLAS REYKJAVIK 000102

SIPDIS

DEPT. FOR EUR/NB, S/ES-O/CMS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: SENV PGOV TPHY ASEC IC
SUBJECT: ICELAND: GOVERNMENT GETS FLYING COLORS FOR 6.3 EARTHQUAKE
RESPONSE

REF: Ops Ctr-EUR/NB-Emb Reykjavik telecon 29 May 08

1. (U) SUMMARY: An earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale
occurred in southwest Iceland on May 29. The epicenter was near the
town of Selfoss, where light property damage was reported as well as
minor injuries. The government response to the earthquake was met
with public praise and approval. With previous newspaper headlines
being critical of the government, the positive response was a much
needed development. End Summary.

2. (U) On Thursday May 29, at 15:45 local time, an earthquake
measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale struck southwestern Iceland. The
epicenter of the earthquake was a few kilometers north of the town
of Selfoss, 50 kilometers east of the capital Reykjavik. The
earthquake was felt strongly in Reykjavik and in much of the rest of
the country. A series of aftershocks followed, but none of the
aftershocks registered above 4.0 on the Richter scale. On Monday,
June 2, an aftershock of 4.5 occurred, the largest since May 29.
According to press reports, geologists at the Meteorological
Institute of Iceland do not expect any more significant earthquakes
in the near future. The May 29 earthquake was the largest since a
magnitude 6.5 earthquake was registered in 2000.

3. (U) No one was killed or seriously injured in the quake, but up
to 30 people are reported to have sought medical treatment fo
broken bones and scratches. Property damage was widespread, but
light. There was some structural damage to residential homes and
other buildings, and a handful of old farmhouses were destroyed.
Numerous residents reported damage to possessions inside their
homes. Local authorities deemed twenty-four houses in the area to
be unfit for habitation several days after the earthquake. Some
roads in the area were reported to have split open and some bridges
were closed to traffic.

4. (U) The Government reacted quickly; Prime Minister Geir Haarde
said in a speech in the Althingi that same day that the government
would do everything possible to help those affected by the
earthquake and placed a priority on ensuring the safety of the
affected area's residents. Minister of Justice Bjorn Bjarnason, who
oversees the police and emergency response services, appeared on
television to outline the government's response plan.

5. (U) PM Haarde and Foreign Minister Ingibjorg Gisladottir visited
the affected areas together on May 30 and met with local officials.
The PM announced the establishment of a service center to expedite
work on insurance claims and the government will allocate ISK 100
million ($1.3 million) for unforeseen costs state institutions may
incur. Observers noted that the civil defense apparatus worked much
better this time than the earthquakes in 2000, and credited lessons
learned from that experience. The National Police Commissioner was
very pleased with how the national TETRA communications system
(purchased from Motorola in 2006) worked in the aftermath of the
earthquake. The only major fault found with the response plans was
the lack of the TETRA system at the Selfoss hospital, which was
sorely needed when cell phone reception was cut. In response, PM
Haarde announced plans to provide all health institutions with TETRA
communications devices.

6. (U) Comment: The Icelandic Government's response to the quake
is deserving of praise and has been well-received by the public.
This is welcome news for Haarde and Gisladottir after the economic
travails of the last six months. Some observers wryly noted that
the quake, coming on the Althingi's last day of business before
summer recess, helpfully pushed the opposition's criticism off the
front pages. End comment.

van Voorst

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