Iceland Volcano No Match for Mica Mosbacher

Iceland Volcano No Match for Mica Mosbacher

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Houstonian Michele “Mica” Mosbacher was named honorary consul to Iceland in January and confirmed in March. The position mostly involves promoting culture and trade opportunities and protecting the rights of Icelanders in the Houston area. Little did Mosbacher know it would place her in the center of the action when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which had erupted in late March, entered an explosive phase that released a huge cloud of ash on April 14.

Q: I hear you had quite a trip to Iceland recently.

A: I went to Reykjavík to the briefings at the foreign ministry, which is the equivalent of our State Department, to understand what my responsibilities would be in this capacity. One of the briefings that I had was on search-and-rescue and evacuation procedures.

Q: You didn’t know how handy that would be.

A: They kind of joked with me. They said, “Well, you’re not living in Haiti or Chile, so I don’t think you need to worry too much about this.” And I asked if it was safe to go to the southern part of Iceland to see this famous resort. It’s called the Hotel Ranga, and it’s the only Michelin four-star resort in Iceland. It’s well known for salmon fishing expeditions, and it’s on the River Ranga, which is about 25 miles west of the volcano.

The ambassador’s wife said to me, “Oh, we’re referring to that volcanic eruption as a tourist eruption, and it’s kaput. You have nothing to worry about.” So I hired a guide, and we drove to the Hotel Ranga. Most of the media were leaving that day. The hotel was capitalizing on the (March) eruption and offering tours, which was kind of enterprising of them.

The next morning around 3 a.m., someone from search-and-rescue woke up the hotel manager to tell him the volcano was erupting, that they were evacuating the farmers in the countryside near the volcano. When we heard about it, we thought he was joking.

When I came downstairs to breakfast, there was a lot of excitement. They had moved in the coast guard and moved in search-and-rescue and several helicopters. Someone had already been up that morning in the helicopter and said, “I’ve never seen a glacier melt like this. Water is rushing onto the road, flooding the area.” They sent in a crew to divert the road — to actually destroy the road and move it away from the bridge; there was only one main artery — so that the water would take the path of least resistance and flow into the ocean.

They grounded all air traffic, including helicopters, until about 7 that evening, and then they allowed one helicopter up … so that the foreign minister could survey it. The volcano was very quiet at that point. It had stopped erupting, at least temporarily. I was up in the air so I could see firsthand what the countryside looked like.

Q: What was it like up there?

A: I had an NBC cameraman with us and the guide and one of my colleagues and then a very experienced search-and-rescue pilot. We were very close to the volcano at that point. It was flowing east, so we stayed west. It was relatively quiet, and then all of a sudden it began erupting; and it was that particular eruption that stopped all the air traffic in Europe. It looked like a nuclear explosion.

And the winds picked up and the helicopter started swaying. I have a pretty funny picture — clearly the expression on my face is “get me out of here.” I was motioning to the pilot to wrap it up, but he thought I meant to circle again. He misinterpreted my hand signals.

So there were five of us in the world that watched it erupt, and when we went back to the lodge, they put up another air stop, and no one was allowed up.

Q: Were you then stuck at the hotel? 

A: Well, we made the decision — because of the magnitude of this volcano — that it might be prudent to drive back to Reykjavík, which is west and on the coast, where we would be out of harm’s way at that point. And we were lucky. The next day there was an Icelandair plane on the ground. The airport was a ghost town, but there was one plane on the ground, and it was able to fly to New York, because that was going west.

So I ended up in New York, and I visited with the consul general. Those of us who represented Iceland were a little worried that frustrated passengers would start making us the unwitting scapegoats for the travel disruption.

Q: Have you been back since then?

A: No. I plan to go back in August. I’m hoping I can go back to the hotel where this wonderful fishing lodge is. Unfortunately, at this point the ground is just covered in ash and the sky is still very hazy, so I know they’re extremely worried about their tourist business, but it does look like the volcano is calming down.

One thing I forgot to mention: The guide that I had with me had planned for us to go trekking on the glacier where the volcano is. At breakfast he pulled out a map and said, “We have a problem. You are here, and we were going to go there.” He pointed to the volcano on the map and said, “I don’t think we’ll be going glacier trekking today.”

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