The island of La Palma is a “huge volcano in the middle of the ocean”. And a part of that volcano is active: three eruptions in 72 years. 1949, 1971 and 2021. So little time between them as to be encompassed in a human life, so ephemeral on the geological scale that governs volcanoes. Josefa Hernández, 88, has witnessed all three: “Two seemed too much for me to see another one,” she says. However, the palm trees do not live every day thinking that, under their feet or their houses, the Earth and magma move.
“This is not Hawaii or Iceland where they have active volcanoes for decades, not here. This explodes, it will be two weeks or a month and for as many years as possible. Once it passes, it tends to forget,” says Diego, one of the neighbors who entered the town of Todoque to rescue belongings before the arrival of the lava. Despite going through this experience, he affirms that the inhabitants of the island do not live thinking that, at some point, the soil on which they live may erupt.
Josefa thinks that “you never get used to it. You don’t think of that.” She has dedicated her entire life to agriculture. On Sunday September 19 at 3:12 p.m. he was watering his avocados when he was warned that the new volcano on La Palma had erupted. He had lived the first when he was 16 years old. “I came home after going to the beach to celebrate the night of San Juan on June 24, 1949 and they told me that a volcano had exploded. At that time, what did I know what a volcano was or anything?” The Canary Islands are one of the most active volcanic regions on the planet and home to two million people who have had to learn to live with the possibility of seeing the terrain erupt where, inevitably, their homes are located.
Diego reflects and points to some reasons for this way of facing this situation: “A thing like this was never experienced because when, for example, the San Juan exploded in 1949, how many people would live here? It destroyed four houses. The trauma today is the number of homes destroyed “. The director of the European Institute of Positive Psychology, Juan Nieto, analyzes that this way of acting “is a normal psychological mechanism because, although we are all at risk and we have dangers lurking, our brain ignores them, even if it has a high probability of occurring”. And he adds that “it is the same as when we start driving. If you calculate the probabilities of having an accident, we could not live.”
Jorge Luis, who is a native of Todoque, corroborates this feeling: “No way. In the end we don’t even take it into account because fifty years have passed from the penultimate to the latter. Patience and the only thing that is lost is money.”
The psychologist analyzes that “we are very attached to material things and at the moment we are experiencing a material crisis, but there will be houses in the future. I would say that, in the end, the emotional, rooted plane will be more relevant.” In this sense, during many of the evacuations, having the opportunity to enter the homes for a few minutes to retrieve belongings, the palmists have sought their things with sentimental rather than economic value. “Rooting and emotional ties are the survival of the human being in terms of individuals and species. After having secured life, the most important thing is that bond.”
“I love the island”
“I love the island. With and without eruptions,” confirms Fulgencio, a 59-year-old bricklayer who is working while the volcano expels its lava, explodes and sends a cloud of ash. “If we don’t work, we don’t get paid,” he says as he sweeps the soot off one of the floors of the building in which he participates. The house is being built on Pintor Cándido Camacho López street, in Tazacorte, behind the laundry on its slow path to the sea. In fact, this road is in the access to the evacuated urban centers.
Fulgencio is from Murcia, but has lived on La Palma for 33 years, as his Palmero accent attests. His house is in the lower part of Los Llanos de Aridane. “We do not have in mind that a volcano can explode. As you do not think that in Madrid a plane or a meteorite could fall,” he answers. “Of course it affects us, it is a very great misfortune for all of us, but on a day-to-day basis, no. If we thought about it, we would not be able to live.”
Also in the Llanos de Aridane, Mónica confirms: “Nobody has that in mind. Life is done like anywhere else,” she says while working at the evacuee center. “We are aware that we live on a volcanic island, but we do not make the proposals based on that. The people who passed the eruption in 71 have already forgotten and, as the island is very dedicated to agriculture and livestock, because it gives a certain feeling of less risk than if it were a much more urbanized land “.
Josefa speaks sitting next to the house that her family built almost a century ago in Fuencaliente. He believes that this volcano, which still has no name, is “the worst of all he has seen” because of the damage it is causing to families and their properties. When San Juan exploded, he thought he would not see “anything else like it,” but the Teneguía arrived in 1971.
Charo is also in the center for the displaced and answers that “in Granada they are not thinking about an earthquake happening.” And then he has a reflection on the future: “In the area where the San Juan volcano erupted, now there are farms with very fertile lands. What kills us now will give life later.” But that thought is for the future. “Today we are devastated because the destruction of friends’ houses, 200-year-old houses … that is making a difference.”
On the question of being in a volcanic area, Juan Nieto says that, psychologically, individuals make a balance until they find a balance “between living in a place like La Palma and the possibility of suffering an eruption. But in Madrid you also have to weigh if it compensates to breathe highly polluted air or with the stress levels that the city implies, which are very harmful. ” The psychologist believes that “surely, at a collective level, La Palma society is going to rebuild itself around the volcano.”
Josefa’s life cycle sums up the experience a bit: she also lived through the underwater eruption that affected one of her neighboring territories, El Hierro. In October 2011 the population of the town of La Restinga, in the south of the island, had to be evacuated. The seismic activity ended in March of the following year after six months. This volcano was the first recorded under the sea in the last 500 years.