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La Palma volcano evacuees start to go home: ‘It’s very dirty, it’s very sad’

Around 1,000 people were told it was safe to return on Monday, out of a total of 7,000 who lost their houses to the three-month eruption on the Spanish island

Evacuated residents of La Palma go back homePhoto: EUROPA PRESS | Video: EPV

Abraham Rodríguez had a bittersweet feeling when he returned home with the furniture his family had taken away weeks earlier, back when they thought it might get destroyed by the volcanic eruption on La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands.

“On the one hand I am happy, I was really looking forward to going back. But on the other I am very sad for relatives who lived nearby and who have lost everything,” said the 18-year-old student from Las Martelas, a neighborhood in the town of Los Llanos de Aridane that was evacuated on October 19 and now looks “like an abandoned place.”

“It’s a very strange feeling. The whole house is full of ash. It’s very dirty, it’s very sad,” said Rodríguez in a telephone conversation. His family had placed some of the furniture in storage ahead of the evacuation, but a few items were left behind and are now covered in volcanic ash. “It was risky to leave things behind, but we’d been hoping the lava would not reach them.”

After three months of volcanic activity, the eruption was officially declared over on Christmas Day, and around 1,000 people were told they could go home starting on Monday. But there are nearly 4,000 more waiting for permission to return, while a further 2,329 people have lost their homes to the lava.

Returning residents are dealing with large cleanup operations.
Returning residents are dealing with large cleanup operations. Europa Press (Europa Press)

The eruption – the longest experienced on La Palma in 375 years – also battered the tourism and agriculture-based economy of this island, located off the northwestern coast of Africa.

Over the course of 85 days, the lava covered 1,219 hectares of land within a perimeter of around 69 kilometers. It destroyed 1,676 buildings – including 1,345 homes – as well as nearly 74 kilometers of roads and 370 hectares of cropland, most of which was being used to grow bananas, the island’s best-known export. Locals are now tallying up the damages and asking the government for more help.

Residents whose houses are still standing in the worst-affected areas of El Paso, Tazacorte, Los Llanos de Aridane and Fuencaliente started to go back on Monday, either to check the state of their homes or, for the lucky ones like Rodríguez, to move back in.

“Last week I went back with the Military Emergency Unit [UME] and other neighbors to measure gas levels and see if I could go home. The results were good,” said Pascual Sánchez, a 50-year-old carpenter who lives in El Charco (Fuencaliente). He figures that after some in-depth cleaning and repairs to damage from the earthquakes, he will be ready to move back in on Wednesday.

Ash buildup in Las Martelas, a neighborhood of Los Llanos de Aridane in La Palma. Photos courtesy of Abraham Rodríguez.
Ash buildup in Las Martelas, a neighborhood of Los Llanos de Aridane in La Palma. Photos courtesy of Abraham Rodríguez.

The regional government of the Canary Islands said in a statement that a new safe zone will be proposed in the coming days that might allow more people from other parts of La Palma to go home. But the executive underscored that “as long as the necessary safety requirements are not met, it will be impossible to authorize the return of people to other areas that were evacuated.”

Returning residents have been warned not to enter low-lying spaces such as storage rooms, garages or basements without first getting a reading on gas levels. Buildings should be ventilated for 15 minutes before going inside, and walls and ceilings checked for cracks or any other signs of structural damage. Government technicians and members of the Red Cross have been assisting homeowners with these tasks.

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