- Dan Johnson
- La Palma, Spain
Imagine trying to sleep under the glow of an erupting volcano, shaking you with its tremors.
Then imagine trying to do that in a small trailer, because your house was either surrounded by lava or buried underneath it.
This is the reality for about 20 families, who go to sleep another night on a side street in Los Llanos. They are just outside the La Palma exclusion zone, in the Canary Islands, Spain.
They were left homeless after the eruption of Cumbre Vieja six weeks ago, and cannot even dream of going home without being woken up by the tremors and the roar of the volcano.
Dacil Batista shares his small caravan with his partner and two children, along with his mother-in-law and sister-in-law. “I’m desperate,” she tells me, “because I don’t know what’s going on with my house.”
“We spent the first nights looking at the volcano, trying to see what it was doing, but now it’s normal for it to be there.”
After all these weeks, one would expect deeper dismay, even anger. But Dacil is grateful for the food, clothes and toys that come from the town hall and hopes to bring her children back home one day.
On the other side of town, the El Roque school has a new class.
The children, separated from their regular lessons, are now taught in a borrowed space using donated books. His teacher, Christina Mederos, managed to take the computers away but not much more before Las Manchas school will be at the mercy to lava.
The walls of this temporary classroom have images of the erupting volcano drawn by children from the Canary Islands and submitted here as a show of support.
Rodrigo, 10, explains that he now lives with his grandmother: “I thought it would end soon, but the volcano destroyed houses.”
Sergio, his classmate, describes the lava and the destruction of the trees, the landscape and his grandfather’s house. He says the eruption “is pretty, but it does a lot of damage.”
The kids can’t even play outside, Christina tells me, because the air and the schoolyard are full of asha.
“It was very emotional to go back (to school), because I really wanted to see the children. I didn’t know how they felt about it,” he says.
The rules for dealing with covid suggest that the windows should be open to ventilate, but with the volcanic ash and the risk of toxic gases they remain firmly closed.
Devastating act of renewal
Scientists have come to La Palma to monitor lava, search for gases and analyze the newest rocks on Earth.
Matt Pankhurst, from the Volcanological Institute of the Canary Islands, shows me the samples taken by dipping a long stick into lava and dropping it, steaming, into a bucket of cold water: live geology lessons on the oldest processes on Earth. Its main focus is the crystals found within the hardened lava.
“In principle, we can forecast volcanic eruptions like we do the weather,” he explains.
“This is the best opportunity yet to link the evidence in the rock with the pre-eruption signals, so that we can know what is coming next time in much more detail.”
It is the story of the formation of the Earth told in a devastating 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 has been marketed as “La isla bonita”. But unlike what the Madonna song says, this is no longer a lullaby in Spanish.
“It was a disaster,” says Basso Lanzone, who organized tours here for years. “Everything changed on this side of the island, now they have nothing. No tourists came because they were afraid of the volcano.”
So Basso refocused his tours and brought 100 hikers from Tenerife to see the volcano.
“It’s a rare possibility,” says Anastasia, visiting from Ukraine. “It’s amazing, feeling nature, what it can do.”
Mark Fordyce from Scotland was on vacation in Tenerife when he saw the volcano trips advertised. “I thought it would be really interesting to come. I saw that the proceeds from this tour go to help the affected families.”
Rebuild on lava
Around the main plaza in Los Llanos, workers constantly sweep and clean, while more volcanic ash falls.
The architect Henry Garritano Pérez pHe lost both his home and his studio when his neighborhood, Todoque, was destroyed by lava. “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.
“Although my roots are under 15 meters of lava, they are in Todoque. The community has to be reborn.”
When asked how anyone could build on the scorched earth of such a disfigured landscape, Henry remains optimistic.
“I understand that it can be built on lava,” he says, “because we live in lava, we live with volcanoes.”
“In Lanzarote [otra de las Islas Canarias] there are houses literally built on lava. That can be repeated here. “
However, he is realistic and knows that it will be a year or more before the lava cools long enough to start rebuilding.
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.
However, even here there is no sense of defeat.
“I was able to take my children, my animals and we have a caravan to stay in, we are not on the street,” he says.
There is a determination of adapt, cope and survive. But more and more people are affected by the impact of this eruption.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.