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


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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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.