Lava flowing from the Canary Islands’ first volcanic eruption in 50 years has forced the evacuation of 5,500 people, destroyed at least 100 houses, and was expected to trigger toxic gases when it reaches the sea in the evening.
By Borja Suarez
LA PALMA, Spain – Lava flowing from the Canary Islands’ first volcanic eruption in 50 years has forced the evacuation of 5,500 people, destroyed at least 100 houses, and was expected to trigger toxic gases when it reaches the sea in the evening.
The volcano erupted on Sunday, shooting lava hundreds of metres into the air, engulfing forests and sending molten rock towards the Atlantic Ocean over a sparsely populated area of La Palma, the north-western most island in the Canaries archipelago.
No fatalities or injuries have been reported but the volcano was still active on Monday, with lava surging over houses as it made its way down the volcano’s slopes towards the sea and heavy smoke billowing from the crater.
The volcano will remain active for the next few days, regional leader Angel Victor Torres said.
“It was horrible,” said Eva, a 53-year old tourist from Austria. “We felt the earthquake, it started in the morning … Then at 3 in the afternoon the lady from our house came and said you have to pack everything and leave quickly.”
“We’re happy to go home now,” she said at the airport, before boarding a flight back home after cutting her trip short.
Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto said the eruption was “a wonderful show” which would attract more tourists – comments that were criticised by the opposition at a time when many residents have lost their home.
Some of the tourists at the airport disagreed with Maroto. “We want to leave as fast as possible,” said Wienard, a 55-year old social worker from Salzburg.
But at least one visitor was happy.
“I felt like a little child inside, very excited,” said Kabirly, 26, a market researcher from Belgium. “It was also my birthday yesterday so it was sort of a candle on the island cake! It was like a present because it was very beautiful the eruption.”
About 360 tourists were evacuated from a resort in La Palma following the eruption and taken to the nearby island of Tenerife by boat early on Monday, a spokesperson for ferry operator Fred Olsen said. A total of more than 500 tourists had to leave their hotels.
REACHING THE SEA
Officials said they were hopeful they would not need to evacuate any more people but warned of the need to be cautious.
“It (the volcano) is still active and will continue to be active for the next few days,” regional leader Torres said. The lava flow was likely to reach the coast about 8pm local time (7pm GMT).
The Canaries Volcanology Institute said that when the lava reaches the sea, it could create a cloud of toxic gases as the molten rock cools rapidly. A spokesperson for Spain’s military emergency unit told state television TVE the lava could cause explosions when it comes in contact with the sea.
Anticipating reduced visibility, maritime authorities have on Monday closed down shipping to the west of the island.
La Palma had been on high alert after thousands of tremors were reported over a week in Cumbre Vieja, which belongs to a chain of volcanoes that last had a major eruption in 1971 and is one of the Canaries’ most active volcanic regions.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez arrived in La Palma on Sunday and said citizens would receive support.
Emergency services said it was unclear what path the lava would take to the ocean. Authorities had evacuated people with mobility issues from several coastal towns, including the Puerto Naos resort.
Airspace around the Canaries remained open with no visibility problems, the Enaire civil air authority said after a local airline cancelled four flights between islands.