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VOLCANO

‘Don’t forget us’: Spain’s Palmeros slowly rebuild their lives after volcano havoc

Just days after a volcano erupted on the Canary island of La Palma, Roselio González’s home — and a lifetime of memories — was engulfed by lava and ash.

This aerial picture shows houses covered with lava and ashes following the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano, in Las Mancha. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO/AFP
This aerial picture shows houses covered with lava and ash following the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano, in Las Manchas (La Palma). Photo: JORGE GUERRERO/AFP

Now the 49-year-old truck driver and his extended family are dispersed across the island in temporary housing but he is determined to rebuild his life.

“We can’t long for what no longer exists. We have to go forward,” González said, standing in front of a police post that blocks entry to the eruption exclusion zone where his home lies.

He is one of the roughly 7,000 people living away from their homes since the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on September 19, spewing rivers of molten rock and sending ash plume containing toxic gases into the air.

González had initially been allowed to return to his house, just 600 metres (1,970 feet) from the volcano, to collect pills for his mother and family photos.

The volcano in the Canary Islands off northwest Africa fell silent on Monday evening and scientists are cautiously optimistic that after three months of explosions and earthquakes, the eruption may be ending.

READ ALSO: Volcanic eruption on Spain’s La Palma shows first signs of ending

“Let’s hope,” said González who now lives with his partner at her mother’s home.

Gonzalez and his former neighbours have set up an association to help rebuild the island — “a marathon” which he predicts will take at least a decade.

No injuries or deaths have been directly linked to the eruption on the island of around 83,000 people but the lava flow has destroyed 1,345 homes, mainly on the western side of La Palma.

Roselio Gonzalez Aguero poses in his courtyard. He is one of the roughly 7,000 people forced from their homes since the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on September 19th. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)
Roselio González Aguero poses in his courtyard. He is one of the roughly 7,000 people forced from their homes since the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on September 19th. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

 

‘There is mourning’

“There is mourning because if you lose your house it is like losing a relative,” said Estefania Martín, a psychologist who counsels victims at a centre in the western town of Los Llanos de Aridane.

Pedro Noel Pérez, a 44-year-old healthcare worker and musician, said his family’s home of 48 years and “half” of his neighbourhood “no longer exists”.

“I no longer have those neighbours but I will always have them here,” he added, placing his hand over his heart.

Many of his former neighbours were on hand to see him sing during a recent small concert in Los Llanos, which is slowly recovering its usual rhythm.

Farmers disembark from a Spanish Navy ship on a beach in Puerto Naos as they're allowed to visit what's left of their land. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)
Farmers disembark from a Spanish Navy ship on a beach in Puerto Naos as they’re allowed to visit what’s left of their land. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)
 

Pérez said he only recently got back his desire to rehearse after weeks of disrupted sleep due to the constant roar of the volcano.

“Taking sleeping pills, using earplugs, it undermines morale,” he said.

The slow moving lava has covered over 1,200 hectares (about 3,000 acres) of land as it made its way to the Atlantic, much of it banana plantations, the island’s main livelihood along with tourism.

“In the short term it is our complete ruin,” said 50-year-old banana farmer Victor Manuel as he travelled on a navy ship taking people to plantations and businesses now inaccessible by road.

“I may have to leave and look for something else on another island, because public institutions are not providing solutions, and I have to save myself and my family.”

‘I have no hope’ 

As the ship docked at the picturesque beach of Puerto Naos — now covered in black ash — Pedro Javier Martín pointed to the restaurant and home he was forced to abandon when the volcano erupted.

“I have no hope… we are screwed,” the 65-year-old said.

“This animal should stop now,” he added, referring to the volcano.

The volcanic eruption — the longest on La Palma since records started being kept in the 16th century — has caused at least €842 million ($949 million) in damages, according to the regional government.

Jesica Díaz and Ricardo Pérez pose next to a Christmas tree installed in front of their caravan in Los Llanos de Aridane on the Canary island of La Palma on December 12, 2021. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP
Jesica Díaz and Ricardo Pérez pose next to a Christmas tree installed in front of their caravan in Los Llanos de Aridane on the Canary island of La Palma on December 12, 2021. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP
 

Jesica Díaz’s home in a seaside neighbourhood was not damaged but it is located in an exclusion zone.

So the 26-year-old beekeeper has been living for the past three months with her son and partner in a caravan in the outskirts of Los Llanos.

The town hall provides electricity and water for the roughly 20 caravans housing volcano evacuees parked there.

Diaz was recently allowed to return to her home for a brief visit, finding it infested with rats and covered in ash.

She gave it and quick clean and picked up her Christmas decorations.

Her caravan is now adorned with a string of lights and an artificial tree sits by the entrance so she can mark the holiday season in her temporary home.

“You can’t stop because of a volcano. It devastates everything but we have to go on,” she said.

“I just ask that we are not forgotten when this is over and it is extinguished,” she added.

READ ALSO: Five ways you can help Spain’s volcano-hit La Palma

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CANARY ISLANDS

Spain’s La Palma residents return home to battle volcano ash

For weeks they dreamt of returning to the homes they fled when a volcano erupted on the Spanish island of La Palma. Now that they are finally trickling back to them, their joy is tempered by finding everything covered in a sea of ash.

Ash damaged houses on La Palma
Houses damaged by the lava flow following the volcano eruption, on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma. Photo: DESIREE MARTIN / AFP

“It’s another world,” said Felix Rodriguez, a 61-year-old bricklayer, as he swept ash from the roof of his house to the terrace below.

He was one of around 1,000 people who were allowed to return to their homes this week, out of a total of 7,000 who were evacuated after the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on September 19th, spewing lava and thick plumes of ash into the air.

But like many of the others, he won’t be able to move back into his home right away.

In addition to blocking doors and paths with piles of ash, lava from the eruption damaged pipes, leaving him without running water.

The lava has also blocked a key road in the Aridane valley, forcing area residents to take much longer routes around the island for trips for basic services that used to take just five minutes.

While the red-hot lava miraculously spared Rodriguez’s home, it engulfed the neighbouring cemetery, leaving only a few tombs visible.

Ash from La Palma volcano

61-year-old mason Felix Rodriguez Luis removes ash from the roof of his house. Photo: DESIREE MARTIN / AFP
 

‘Horrible’

Spanish authorities declared the eruption officially over on Christmas Day following 10 days of no lava flows, earthquakes or significant gas emissions.

No injuries or deaths have been directly linked to the eruption on the tiny isle, part of the Canary Islands which lie off Africa’s northwest coast.

But it destroyed over 1,300 homes, mainly on the western side of La Palma, and covered 1,250 hectares (about 3,100 acres) of land, including vineyards and plantations of bananas and avocados.

Carmen Acosta, 57, is one of the lucky few who on Monday was able to sleep in their home again for the first time after living in a hotel for over three months.

Her parents, who are in their 80s, live with her in the bright blue, one-story house that is surrounded by fruit trees and has a sweeping view of the Atlantic Ocean.

“We have a lot of things to clean,” said Acosta, as she was surrounded by plastic bags full of clothes, food and medicines which the family brought with them.

“Even in six months, it won’t be finished. There is a lot of ash, a lot of garbage… It’s horrible.”

In the affected area, mounds of ash engulf orange and apple trees, making them look like shrubs.

‘Joy and helplessness’

Gladys Jeronimo, a recently retired 65-year-old housekeeper, had looked forward to resting after decades of work.

“But for now this is all there is: sadness and cleaning and cleaning,” she said as she swept her porch.

Jeronimo said she felt “a lot of joy and helplessness at the same time”.

“Joy because it’s over, but helplessness because we can’t come back” permanently, since running water has not yet been restored, she said.

Ash damaged houses in La Palma

Retired nursing assistant Maria Zobeida Perez Cabrera, 68, removes ashes from her garden. Photo by DESIREE MARTIN / AFP

Her neighbour Maria Zobeida Perez Cabrera, a 68-year-old caregiver, said her second home, which used to belong to her parents, was “horrible, like a graveyard,” because everything was covered in black ash.

“Everything around us was black, there was no soil, no roof, even the plants were black,” she said as she loaded a wheelbarrow with ash.

Ruben Lopez, a geologist with the Spanish geographical Institute, said winds will blow “much” of the ash into the sea.

While the surface of the lava has cooled, the flows “still store a lot of heat,” he added.

“This will last weeks, even months, and in addition they release gases,” he said.

It will be easier to build on top of lava that has cooled than to remove it, he added.

‘Throwing in the towel’

Like thousands of others, Jorge Diaz Hernandez does not know when he will be allowed to return to his home.

“This is the million euro question,” the 36-year-old said with a shrug at a mountaintop lookout in the municipality of Los Llanos de Aridane.

During the eruption he came regularly to this spot to see if the banana plantation he has run for the past decade had been affected.

It was spared the lava, but Diaz estimated it will take three years to restart production because of the ash damage.

“I am throwing in the towel, I will dedicate myself to something else,” he said.

“I was already tired of the way agriculture and bananas are treated, the low prices, the cost of water, all that. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he added.

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