The people who survived La Palma volcano are shaken, but determined to restore it
Imagine trying to fall asleep in the glow of an erupting volcano, shaken by its tremors.
Then imagine trying to do so in a cramped caravan when your home was surrounded by lava or buried beneath it.
This is the reverse reality for about 20 families who go to bed the next night in a back street in Los Llanos. They are located just behind the restricted zone at La Palma in the Spanish Canary Islands.
They are homeless people from a six-week eruption who can’t even dream of returning home without being awakened by the tremors and rumble of the volcano.
Dacil Batista shares his small caravan with his partner and their two children, along with his mother-in-law and sister-in-law. “I’m desperate,” he tells me, “because I don’t know what’s going on with my house.”
“We looked at the volcano for the first few nights and tried to find out what it was doing, but now it’s normal to have it there.”
After all those weeks, you would expect deeper horror, even anger. However, Dacil is grateful for the food, clothes and toys from the local town hall and hopes that one day she will take her children home.
Right on the other side of town, El Roque School has a new classroom.
Children who are cut off from their regular classes are now learning in borrowed areas using donated books. Their teacher Christine Mederos managed to grab the computers, but nothing else before the school in Las Manchas was left behind by lava.
On the walls of this temporary classroom are pictures of a volcanic eruption drawn by children from the Canary Islands and sent here for support.
Ten-year-old Rodrigo explains that he now lives with his grandmother: “I thought it would end quickly, but the volcano destroyed the houses.”
Classmate Sergio describes the lava and the destruction of the trees, the landscape and the house of his grandfather. He says the eruption “is beautiful, but it does a lot of damage.”
The kids can’t even play outside, Christina tells me, because the air and the schoolyard are thick with ashes. “It was very emotional to go back [to school] because I really wanted to see the kids. I didn’t know how they felt about it all,” he says.
Covid’s rules suggest that windows should be open for ventilation, but volcanic ash and the risk of toxic gases mean that they will remain tightly closed. Masks and goggles are in place before the children go out.
Scientists came to La Palma to monitor lava, check gases and analyze the latest rocks on Earth.
Dr. Matt Pankhurst of the Volcanic Institute in the Canary Islands shows me samples taken by pushing a long stick into the lava and throwing it into a bucket of cold water – live geology lessons in the oldest processes on Earth. Its main focus is crystals held in hardened lava.
“In principle, we can predict volcanic eruptions as the weather,” he explains. “This is the best chance so far to combine the evidence in the rock with the pre-eruption signals so that we know what will come next, in much more detail.”
It is a story of the formation of the Earth retold in a destructive act of renewal. On these islands, life has always been built on the ruins of a previous eruption.
Tourism also defines the Canary Islands. La Palma was sold as “La isla bonita” – a beautiful island. But unlike Madonna’s song, this is no longer a Spanish lullaby.
“It was a disaster,” says Basso Lanzone, who has been organizing tours here for years. “It changed everything on this side of the island – now they have nothing. No tourists came because they were afraid of the volcano.”
So Basso reoriented his trips and brought 100 one-day hikers from Tenerife to see the volcano.
It’s a rare opportunity, “says Anastasia on a visit from Ukraine.” It’s amazing to feel nature, what she can do. “
Mark Fordyce from Aberdeen was on vacation in Tenerife when he saw advertised trips to the volcanoes. “I just thought it would be really interesting to come. I’ve seen the proceeds from this tour go to help the affected families.”
Around the main square of Los Llanos, workers are constantly sweeping and cleaning as more volcanic ash falls.
Architect Henry Garritano Perez lost his home and studio to lava when his village of Todoque was destroyed. “It wasn’t a typical neighborhood,” he says, “it was an extended family.”
When the pretty little white church where Henry was married finally collapsed, many lost hope. But not Henry, still smiling through the dust. “Even though my roots are under 15m of lava, they are in Todoque. The community has to be reborn.”
When I ask how anyone could build on the scorched earth of such a disfigured landscape Henry remains upbeat. “I saw that on Lanzarote [another of the Canary Islands] there are houses literally built on lava. That can be repeated here.”
He’s realistic, however, that it will be a year or more before the lava is cool enough to start reconstruction.
Too long for Dacil Batista and the others whose world has shrunk to the size of a caravan – families uprooted and scattered across the island.
Yet even here there is no sense of defeat.
“I could take my kids, my animals and we have a caravan to stay in – we’re not on the streets,” she says.
There is a determination to adapt, cope and survive. But every day more people are affected by the impact of this eruption.
Additional reporting by Lorna Acquah and Esperanza Claramunt.