MADRID – A six-kilometer black lava scar crossing Spain's La Palma island remains as testimony to the three-month-long volcano eruption that may have left no casualties but did wreak havoc in the lives of many.
As officials held ceremonies Monday to commemorate the first anniversary of the start of what was one of the most televised volcanic eruptions of the century in Europe, the Spanish island located in the Canary Islands archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa is not the same, geologically, economically, or socially.
Under the thick molten rock slab — still slowly cooling down from the initial 1,140 degrees Celsius (2,084 degrees Fahrenheit) — some 3,000 buildings were buried along with many banana plantations, roads and irrigation systems.
Alongside agriculture, tourism is critical to the island’s economy. But half of the 8,000 registered places of accommodation remain closed due to the presence of poisonous gases — the same reason that keeps around 170 local people still living in hotel rooms.
The former touristic spot of Puerto Naos is described by local newspapers as a ghost town. The lava didn't reach the town, but the high concentration of CO2 gases forced the evacuation of its 1,000 residents. Most are staying with relatives, and all continue to wonder when they will be allowed back home.
La Palma — population 84,790 — has become the focus of many politicians and dignitaries. Cabinet members including Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez have visited the island 60 times, mostly to announce new aid packages. Queen Letizia recently chose La Palma for her yearly visit to a school at the beginning of the academic year.
Public funds to aid reconstruction totaling 566 million euros ($564 million) have been delivered by the government.
Yet a grouping of those affected by the volcano plans to mark the anniversary Monday with a protest over what they consider bad management of the funds.
Others resent the fact that when the roar of the volcano died down after 85 days, solidarity disappeared.
“Politicians don’t really care about us,” said banana farmer Juan Carlos Rodríguez. He said the subsidies were insufficient.
However, some entrepreneurs are finding ways to reshape their businesses and exploit the eruption.
AstroLaPalma used to offer nighttime stargazing programs under the clear Canary Island sky. Now, owner Ana García guides amazed visitors through the volcanic ashes.
The volcano didn’t really have a name before it erupted, though it was popularly known as Cumbre Vieja — the name of the surrounding national park. This summer, island residents voted to call it Tajogaite — the name of the area in the ancient Guanche language.
It’s the first year of a new era for the volcanic islands, and locals are also determined to thrive.
Just two months ago, the islanders were able to claim a minor victory over the volcano with the opening of a new road built over the lava rock to connect the sides of the Aridane Valley that was split in two by the eruption.
The road takes two hours off the drive to reach isolated houses, shortens kids’ school routes and allows access to the surviving banana plantations in the valley.