The slow revival of La Palma

A year after the eruption of the volcano, the island is slowly recovering. Toxic gases still block two of its towns and the patience of the locals is beginning to run out in the face of land speculation and the pace of aid

While technicians wearing airtight safety suits and oxygen bottles enter one of the main bars on the Paseo Marítimo in Puerto Naos, a tourist center in the southwest of the island of La Palma, to detect the release of CO2 and other toxic gases, Carmen Castro, its owner, is waiting outside. She has asked permission to take some of her fridges and clean up the ash that keeps coming in. «The return is lengthening and there is a lot of uncertainty. It takes so long that you get used to it and your head spins a lot. That is why we are considering opening in another place, ”explains Castro, who points to the flight that other emblematic bars of this pole of commerce and tourism have already undertaken.

His, called the Beach Bar, had employed four people for nine years. "I'm taking the furniture before it breaks." Forty-eight years old and with a family in the north of the island, Carmen Castro had a place to sleep from the first day that the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted - a year ago tomorrow - and the threatened towns were evicted. The perpetual footprint of the lava petrified very close to there, on several neighboring communities. In Puerto Naos and La Bombilla, although they were not devastated by the volcanic force, the toxic gases have not stopped flowing. And the neighbors have not been able to return to their homes nine months after the emergency ended.

Measurement of carbon monoxide and dioxide, methane, hydrochloric acid and radon, among other chemicals, takes a few minutes. The technicians check the sewage system and the bathrooms, through which the magma gases find their natural outlet from fissures several kilometers deep, explains Rafael García, technical director of Security and Emergencies of the Cabildo de La Palma, in charge of monitoring this phenomenon from on November 23, when the threat of toxic gases was detected. Since then he has accompanied more than 700 neighbors to collect their things, from papers and photographs to clothes. Without this security measure, no inhabitant or entrepreneur is authorized to enter your home or business. Although time has passed, the danger remains. "In recent weeks the level of gases has risen," warns García. "Since June there has been no improvement and in some areas it has worsened."

lethal measurements

Jordana Rodríguez, a council support technician, comes out of the Beach Bar and takes off her helmet and gas mask. She examines the results and allows them to enter. When Castro crosses her portal, Rodríguez continues the measurements in other places. In a basement, a few steps away, the alarm goes off. There is 13% oxygen and 300,000 parts per million monoxide. “They are lethal levels. Below 15% you can die, "says Garcia. Something similar happens in a nearby garage, where there are several dead turtledoves from gas inhalation. In these cases, Rodríguez and her partner are not more than five minutes inside.

Sleeping giant. The volcano rises above La Laguna. Paul Cobos

A year after the eruption that lasted 85 days, 535 million euros in aid have been delivered, but those affected have had different destinations. There are the 139 beneficiaries of a Cabildo house for three years, those who settled with relatives and those who emigrated (no records); the 489 owners who received aid from both the regional and central government, which reaches 90,000 euros in addition to other assistance items; those who collected the insurance -in the midst of the explosion, policies were signed-; those who have managed to rebuild their daily lives and those who still live in uncertainty. Nearly a thousand neighbors lived in the still uninhabited areas, according to data from the Ministry of the Environment. One tenth, 104, are still staying in hotels at a cost of 4 million euros to date.

Among them is Marisa Álvarez, who left Puerto Naos with what she was wearing and her nonagenarian in-laws. She saw one of them die in the midst of a catastrophe and now she takes care of his mother, who recently had surgery. "People want to go into their houses like crazy, but if they keep us in the hotel it will be for a reason," he says. On the occasion of the first anniversary of the eruption, a protest has been organized in this coastal enclave. “There are people who do not believe that there are gases, others who believe that they will go away if we ventilate better. We want more transparency », demands Castro, while he looks at the black sand beach. "It's always been that color," he clarifies. She also managed the rental of hammocks and was preparing to open another restaurant with her husband and her daughter. "The neighbors are desperate," she summarizes.

La Palma, one year later

The reconstruction is going slowly. In numbers, "more than 7,800 housing, business and agricultural land files have been opened, which benefit some 15,000 people, of which less than 4% remain to be resolved," calculates Sergio Matos, coordinator of the Office of Attention to the Volcano affected. This service has invested 242 million euros in the accommodation of those affected and allocated some 15 million euros in aid to the banana sector, 77 million to companies and the self-employed and 88 million to the public employment plan, with which, for example, ash cleaners were hired. Some 4,400 people were employed with this exceptional measure. The remains of ash, a year later, are disappearing from the island.

Big challenges

A year after the open craters at Cumbre Vieja spilled their lava over the west of La Palma, most of the landscape is as the volcano left it when it went to sleep. In the devastated areas, the black of the solidified flows prevails, like the one that covered Todoque and where a road now opens, still under construction although passable, that connects La Laguna with Las Manchas. This route, which avoids a detour of a couple of hours to get from one neighboring neighborhood to another, dissects the heart of the desolate island with the work of heavy machinery, on land where the presence of toxic gases and hot”.

Operators who work in the laundry area check the conditions of the recently opened road

Cut down the mountains of new stone that make the tractors look like toys, there are the vestiges of what was a town of "land houses" -as they call the constructions with orchards, most of them with several floors or with satellite houses for relatives of the original owners on plots of at least one thousand square meters. There are embedded walls and ceilings that break the monotony of a dark painting that goes from the mountain to the sea. This path once again allows a circular route through this mountainous island and revives the region of Los Llanos de Aridane where, according to official data, more than a third of the island population (35,000 people) lives, with some 7,500 affected by a volcano that still It has no name, although it is known as Cumbre Vieja and in digital queries Tajogaite (cracked mountain, in Guanche) was chosen.

In addition to reopening communication channels, already damaged before the natural disaster, and serving citizens who are still homeless, the challenges are finances. "There is a paralysis of the economy of the valley, productivity has dropped, means of work have been lost and there are people who have left the island," analyzes Miguel Ángel Morcuende, technical director of Pevolca during the emergency that ended on 25 december. There are no official data on the emigration of palmeros, but it is estimated that they could be around 3,000. "My future is not here, on this island," admits Leticia García Sánchez, a mother of three minors who lost her house in Los Campitos.

The pillars of tourism and agriculture sustain the finances of the island. Both are battered, although the volcano, due to human fascination with nature, has been a tourist attraction in recent months. "This summer we have had the greatest connectivity in history and moments of collapse have arrived," says Raúl Camacho, Councilor for Tourism of La Palma. "Because before there were some 16,000 beds, but 1,200 have been lost and another 5,000 are in the exclusion zones." This 40% less includes the 'tourist apartments' that families built inside their country houses and the closure of one of the three large hotels, the Meliá in Puerto Naos.

Agriculture based mainly on the cultivation of bananas falters due to lack of water, broken water systems. “A year later it is not lava but drought, we have already lost one harvest and it is on its way to the second,” warns Víctor Bonilla, a farmer with bushels in various parts of the island. “A year later the water should already be there. There is neglect to rebuild these vital works ».

And on an island of some 700,000 km2, ownership of the affected land is a thorny issue. “The ground is not the same as it was before. There were troughs (they expand the surface with the unevenness) and now it is all flat and the same number of houses no longer enter, "explains Morcuende. So the hope of returning to their properties is fading for many islanders.

The climax of these stories is tattooed on the back of a young woman's neck: "Always forward." The motto that guides La Palma one year after the eruption of the volcano.

A handful of speculators and a mystery

D. Chiappe

the Palm. Those affected by the La Palma volcano have a special permit to build on rustic land, where others can only use it for agriculture. After losing her house in Los Campitos in the first hours of the eruption, Leticia García Sánchez began the search. «We asked about a piece of land that had a tool room, I loved it and it was worth 40,000 euros. But the owner asked me if we were affected by the volcano and knowing that we were, he raised it to 70,000 because they did let me build. She says that she has received 6,000 euros in two regional grants, but not yet compensation for the house. "What used to cost 15 euros per square meter is now 35. How do you build a house with those prices?" She claims.

In the Office of Attention to Those Affected by the Volcano they are aware of the speculation that affects land and rents. "If it cost 470 euros, now it is almost 800," says Matos. The reasons are the aid received by those interested, the permission that those affected have to build where it is forbidden for others and the loss of useful surface, even if it is barely 1% under the lava, in addition to the areas still excluded. The "affectation" is 12%, says the council, and the square meter of rural land has gone from 5 to 70 euros.

While the land is being speculated, a mystery remains open on the island. A 72-year-old man went to clean ashes from one of his sisters' houses in Las Manchas and did not return alive. Julio AC passed away in November during the volcanic emergency but is not included in the statistics. Officially there were no fatalities from the eruption of Cumbre Vieja. But the causes of this death are still unknown. The autopsy was not done in La Palma, which does not have a Forensic Anatomical Institute, indicates a source, and the authorities consulted do not know where the body was taken. He could have inhaled toxic gases, which would attribute his death to the volcano, or have a 'natural death'. If the results were sent, they have been lost or saved without noise. "He came in with a group and the man didn't come out," says a source. "The companions thought that he had left before and at night his relatives made the complaint."

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