Disasters & Accidents

La Palma neighbors lean on volunteers, each other to clear mounds of ash

By Laura Bautista

Las Manchas (La Palma, Spain), Jan 4 (EFE).- Consuelo considers herself lucky. Her ‘bodeguita’ in Tacande near the volcano on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma is one of the few properties that managed to escape the lava from last year’s three-month long eruption, but not the ash. There’s more black powder than she could ever clean up, no matter how hard she tries – which is why the volunteers have been brought in.

“Guys, I’m stopping here, the car won’t go any further, thank you very much,” she tells the members of the Red Cross clean-up brigade. She cannot go on foot, but the volunteers continue up the mountain on their way to the wine cellar.

“Part of it has already collapsed, but maybe something can be saved,” Consuelo says.

Black dunes that not even the Red Cross all-terrain vehicle can drive through cover what used to be a road. Shovels, hoes, buckets and brushes on their shoulders, the brigade of cleaners is unfazed by the knee-high piles of ash.

The group is made up of volunteers from different regions of Spain who have come to the Canary Island to save homes and businesses from tons of volcanic slag that is threatening the buildings.

Standing on top of Consuelo’s ‘bodeguita’ is Reiner, who is relieved to see the arrival of the reinforcements. He has been ridding the roof of ash since 10:30 this morning…. “And look at how much is left,” he sighs.

The priority is the roof and the cistern, which are in danger of sinking. “We’ve already lost this other area, we’ll see what we’ll do about that later,” he laments, pointing to a jumble of roof tiles that used to be a semi-covered patio with a barbecue.

The volcano gave no respite during its three-month eruption, which spewed lava and ash from 19 September until mid-December. The eruption was officially declared over on Christmas Day after an extended lull in activity.

The resulting mountain looming in the Cumbre Vieja natural park has turned the whole area into a black desert.

“Here we used to celebrate parties and barbecues. We would spend the weekends…,” Reiner says with more than a hint of regret: “All this was green,” he says, melancholically scanning the inky horizon.

Consuelo’s ‘bodeguita’ is not the only stop the Red Cross cleanup brigade has made. In Tacande, the group accompanied Michael and his partner to their house to measure dangerous gas levels. “We are fine, it’s a second home,” the resident says, “surely there is someone who needs them more than us.”

He talks to the Red Cross while trying to enter his house, fronted by a terrace with two hammocks. There, too, the mountains of ash reach the doorknobs. There is no end to the neighbors’ solidarity.

Lorenzo, who doesn’t know Michael, echoes those words. He has two properties in the area that he is going to check to see “how they are doing,” he jokes. At Los Acebuches, after climbing a steep hill, he waits patiently for the Red Cross volunteer who accompanies him to take the safety measurements.

At each beep he is startled: “Oh, God, is that gas?” he asks the team, who reassure him.

“The roof is quite clean, the cistern too,” he cheers, after neighbours had stopped by to lend a hand and pick up a shovel.

Isabel, in Las Manchas, has gone to visit the house of an elderly person she has been caring for for years, who lives alone. “The house is there, and that’s what’s important,” she says resolutely, playing down the importance of the layer of ash more than a foot thick that covers the entire patio.

Seven people, with shovel, hoe and wheelbarrow, join her to try to save the cisterns and free up the entryways to a house that dates back to 1900. Faced with the destruction left by the volcano, she plays music to spread positive energy to the team. To the rhythm of salsa and rumba, the ceramic floor is beginning to emerge.

Only a few meters away from the southernmost flow, which crossed over the cemetery of Las Manchas, a green and white ribbon separates the houses to be saved from those condemned by the volcano. Here, the ash becomes dense and thick. The houses are buried, the roofs and chimneys peeking out from among the dunes of ash.

The black panorama and eerie silence is broken by the noise of the shovels, which work selflessly to save these houses buried by the fury of Cumbre Vieja.

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