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LA PALMA

Spain declares Canaries volcano eruption officially over

The eruption of a volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma that destroyed hundreds of homes and large swathes of farmland has ended, officials said Saturday over three months after it began.

The Cumbre Vieja volcano is seen from Los Llanos de Aridane on the Canary island of La Palma
No injuries or deaths have been directly linked to the volcano's eruptions, which began in mid-September. DESIREE MARTIN / AFP

The announcement follows 10 days of low-level activity from the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the tiny isle, part of the Canary Islands which lie off Africa’s northwest coast.

No injuries or deaths have been directly linked to the eruption, which began on September 19th, spewing rivers of molten rock and sending ash plume containing toxic gases into the air.

But it destroyed 1,345 homes, mainly on the western side of La Palma, as well as schools, churches, health centres and farm irrigation infrastructure.

Dramatic footage from the first days of the eruption have been repeatedly aired on Spanish TV, showing a cloud of dense smoke engulfing the bell tower of a church before it collapsed.

The slow-moving lava has covered 1,250 hectares (about 3,100 acres) of land as it made its way to the Atlantic, much of it banana plantations, La Palma’s main livelihood along with tourism.

The eruption — which was accompanied by frequent earthquakes — is the first in La Palma since 1971 and the longest on record on the island of around 83,000 people.

About 7,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, with many given just minutes to pack their belongings.

The damage from the eruption could exceed 900 million euros ($1.0 billion), according to regional officials.

‘Repair, rebuild, relaunch’
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who visited La Palma several times during the eruption, has pledged to help La Palma rebuild after the disaster.

“When the lava stops flowing, all public institutions will continue to work to repair, rebuild and relaunch La Palma to a better future,” he said during a visit to the island last month.

His government has so far promised 225 million euros in aid funding to recovery efforts, including buying temporary housing and providing financial assistance to people who lost their jobs.

Experts have warned it will take several years to clean up the land destroyed by the lava and remove huge amounts of ash from buildings and roads.

Soldiers from an emergency unit have been removing ash from rooftops throughout the eruption to prevent buildings from collapsing.

The volcano will continue to release toxic gases for a long spell, which could pose a threat to the population. The lava will also take a long time to cool to a safe level.

“The end of the eruption doesn’t meant to say there’s no longer any danger,” said Julio Perez, a director of the Canary emergency volcanic response.

“The risks and dangers persist,” he told a news conference.

Many locals have complained that state aid has been slow in coming, with some already mulling moving away from the island known as “La Island bonita” — “The Beautiful Island” — for its lush landscape.

“I may have to leave and look for something else on another island, because public institutions are not up to the challenge of this disaster,” Victor Manuel, a 50-year-old banana farmer, told AFP recently.

“And I have to save myself and my family,” he added.

The lava from the volcano created two new peninsulas when it cascaded into the ocean, one 44 hectares in size and the other about five hectares.

La Palma is roughly 35 kilometres (22 miles) long and 20 kilometres (12 miles) wide at its broadest point.

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VOLCANO

Spanish islanders struggle one year after volcanic eruption

"Our plan now is... there are no plans," said a tearful Leticia Sánchez García, a year after her house was buried under lava from a volcano that erupted on the Spanish island of La Palma.

Spanish islanders struggle one year after volcanic eruption

After living with friends for months, the 34-year-old was finally able to move in May, along with her partner and three young children, into a prefabricated wooden house provided by the government.

Yet for her and many others on the tiny isle, part of the Canary Islands chain off Africa’s northwest coast, life remains difficult.

On Monday, it will be a year to the day since the Tajogaite volcano – previously known as Cumbre Vieja for the ridge on which it sits – erupted.

A year on, Sánchez and others like her face an uncertain future. Sánchez works as a geriatric nursing assistant, but her contract expires in December.

Her partner lost his job when the banana plantation where he worked was destroyed by the volcano. Now he is employed by the local government as a street sweeper but his contract too ends in December.

The family can stay in the three-bedroom house for one year for free. “I am still in denial,” she admitted, sitting on the patio of her new house in Los Llanos de Aridane, the economic centre of the island of around 83,000 people. “I still think I will return one day.”

From the patio, Sánchez can see the volcano that upended her life and the mountain slope where her house once stood. But she avoids looking in that direction, she said. She missed her “garden, her chickens, making plans with friends”.

‘Rather be dead’

The volcano rumbled for 85 days, ejecting ash and rivers of lava that swallowed up more than a 1,000 homes.  It also destroyed schools, churches and health centres, cut off highways and suffocated the lush banana plantations that drive the island’s economy.

So far, the government has provided more than €500 million towards temporary housing, road repairs, clearing ash and financial support to people who lost their jobs.

But many locals complain that the pace of reconstruction is too slow. Applications for public aid are complex, they say: craftsmen are often booked out, building materials scarce and construction permits too slow in coming.

So far, only five of the 121 prefabricated houses bought by the government have been allotted to people left homeless by the volcano, says the regional government.

Around 250 people whose homes were destroyed are still living in hotels, according to the Platform of Victims of the Volcano, which lobbies for those who lost their property. Another 150 are staying with friends and family.

“No one died in the eruption,” said the group’s president, Juan Fernando Pérez Martín, a 70-year-old former high school teacher who has polio.

“But some of us would rather be dead than suffer all these strong emotions, all these problems we are facing.”

His house, which was adapted for his wheelchair, was buried under more than 20 metres of molten rock.

Frustrated by the delays in getting government aid, he took out a bank loan to buy a more modest house in the central town of El Paso and adapt it for his disability. He lives there with his Mexican wife.

‘In limbo’

One of the few items they were able to take when they fled their previous home was a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which now features prominently in their kitchen. Everything else is gone, including Martin’s prized collection of nearly 6,000 books.

“I can never recover that,” he told AFP in the patio of his new home where he likes to smoke cigars.

While the eruption was officially declared over on Christmas Day, the volcano will continue to release toxic gases for a long time.

That is why some 1,100 people are still unable to return to their homes in and around Puerto Naos, a resort town on the southwest coast of the island.

The gas levels in the area are considered too dangerous. Signs featuring skulls and crossbones at the entrance to the town warn of the “risk of asphyxiation”.

“We are in limbo,” said Eulalia Villalba Simon, 58, who owns a restaurant and flat in Puerto Naos to which she no longer has access.

She now rents an apartment on the other side of the island, surviving thanks to aid from the government and charities.

“We don’t know when we can go back or even if we will be able to return because we have been told it could last for months or years,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen.”

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