Kristín Jóhannsdóttir remembers perfectly the early morning of January 23, 1973. “I was 13 years old. My father woke up my brothers and me. I was very nervous. He kept saying, ‘My God, my God.’ I looked out the living room window and saw that everything was on fire. My first thought was: ‘War has broken out.’
In fact, one of the worst volcanic eruptions in Icelandic history had started. In the middle of the night and without warning, a fissure of more than a kilometer long opened in the ground that began to vomit rivers of lava and spit magma bombs of more than 25 kilos that fell on the houses of the town of Vestmannaeyjar, located at a few hundred meters down the hill. Many experts agree that the eruption of the Eldfell volcano and the destruction it caused is the closest known to that of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma. The Icelandic catastrophe contains very interesting lessons for the Canary Island, especially for its inhabitants who have lost everything. This place is an example of how a lost community can be reborn from the ashes of a volcano.
Egill Egilson was 24 years old when the eruption broke out. He lived with his wife and his almost newborn son. “It was two in the morning,” he remembers. “I turned on the radio. They said they would report what to do. And they told us all to the port. All the fishing boats were there. The day before was very bad weather and they had not gone out to fish. We were lucky in that ”.
Vestmannaeyjar is the only town on the island of Heimaey, which in turn is the only inhabited one in an archipelago of 15 islands south of Iceland. The volcanic activity is obvious. In 1963, another eruption began in the middle of the sea that lasted three years and ended up forming a new island: Surtsey.
In just six hours, the fishing fleet and military planes evicted the vast majority of Heimaey’s 5,500 residents. They could hardly take some clothes with them and, in the best of cases, milk and a cookie to feed their children. Many would not return to their island until a year later.
Canadian geologist Alan Morgan managed to land on Heimaey six days after the eruption began armed with cameras. His diaries of that day make the hair stand on end. “The volcano was just above the town and a shower of liquid fire was falling from it,” he wrote. “There are about 35 explosions per minute. Lava bombs change shape as they rise and fall. All the lights in town are on, but there is not a soul. In the harbor there is a ship split in half, half sunk, covered in ash. The dock and the streets are buried in 60 centimeters of black earth ”.
The engineer Páll Zóphóníasson was one of the 200 inhabitants who decided to stay to face the volcano. “The first days we acted without any kind of plan,” he recalls. “Then the civil protection officers came from Reykjavik [la capital islandesa] and they helped us remove furniture and possessions from houses and offices. We started putting them in containers. We used private cars and fishing boats. Then big ships came with more containers. By then the dock was full of cars. We had to take them all to Reykjavik. It took us a month to take everything, but we emptied all the houses in Vestmannaeyjar, ”explains Zóphóníasson. This engineer was 30 when the tragedy happened. Now, at 79, he explains his story in a viewpoint built just above the 1973 lava flow from where there is a wonderful view of the islands and the port. It is almost impossible to believe that less than 50 years ago almost half the town was under lava and ash.
The photos of the time are very reminiscent of those of La Palma. The volunteers worked hard to remove the ash from the roofs to prevent them from sinking. In that case, they also placed corrugated metal sheets on the windows to try to save them from the pyroclastic bombs. In spite of everything, the lava advanced unstoppably and threatened to close the exit to the sea from the port, which was the only way of life for the vast majority of the population.
“So we did an experiment,” recalls Zóphóníasson. “Near the dock we took a fire truck and started pouring water into the lava. When we did, we saw that the lava was moving to the other side. So it was decided to bring all the pressure pumps that were in Iceland to irrigate the lava ”.
It was the largest operation of its kind known. Miles of pipes, dozens of pumps, and two firefighting boats were used. It is impossible to know if it worked or not, although most volcanologists believe it did. The truth is that the lava moved the other way, probably destroying more houses, but the port was saved.
Eldfell erupted for five months and five days. In total, more than 400 houses were lost and some 2,000 people were made homeless. A year after the tragedy the inhabitants began to return to the town.
“The first winter was very dark and silent,” recalls Kristín Jóhannsdóttir. “Everything was black. Most of the city had to be dug up. The houses that had been completely covered in ash were heavily damaged. My first job, like most of the kids in town, was to remove all that black sand. All summer we were removing it from the gardens of the houses and planting grass ”, he details.
The images of the reconstruction are overwhelming. In the port the lava front had reached two large ships where the fish was processed. Just a year later all the solidified lava had been removed. The two buildings returned to operation and the cars were able to pass through that street again.
“There was a million cubic meters of ash,” recalls engineer Zóphóníasson. “We took about 700,000 cubic meters to the west of the island and used it to build foundations for new houses and a new airstrip. By September we had already removed 70% of the ash. The lava turned into rock and about two months later we could get on it and work. We recovered two roads. It was not difficult with the bulldozers ”, he adds.
The reconstruction was paid for with a small tax increase for all Icelanders, recalls Zóphóníasson. One of the first actions was to bring 550 prefabricated houses to house those who had lost their homes. In addition, a lot of economic aid came from other Scandinavian countries. Morgan estimated the total cost of the eruption to be about $ 100 million at the time.
A year after the eruption, 3,500 of its 5,500 inhabitants had returned to Heimaey. The population has never fully recovered, as 4,300 currently live there. Many families decided never to return. One of them is that of the owner of a house that was unearthed from the ashes of the volcano 40 years later. As they cleared the rough black earth, they found everything their owners had left behind on the run: their babies’ clothes, their toiletries, plastic plates grotesquely twisted by the heat. A thermometer stood at 90 degrees Celsius.
Today that house is one of the symbols of Vestmannaeyjar’s rebirth. The building is preserved as it was unearthed, with all its objects lying on the ground. The roofs are propped up so they don’t collapse. The most interesting thing is that this house is now inside a modern glass and wrought iron building. It is the museum of the Eldfell eruption, which in Icelandic means mountain of fire.
“After the eruption we became one of the main tourist attractions,” explains Kristín Jóhannsdóttir, director of the museum. “All the travelers who came to Iceland came to Vestmannaeyjar to see the volcano and walk in this new land. It took us a while to convince people to carry out this project, but they finally understood that it would be interesting to tell new generations what happened. Seven years later, most of them are very proud of the museum, ”he adds. This initiative financed between the Town Hall and the State of Iceland cost about six million euros. It receives about 40,000 visitors a year and, according to Jóhannsdóttir, it has already been profitable.
That night in January 1973 Jóhannsdóttir breathed surprisingly easy. “When my father told us it was a volcanic eruption I thought, ‘OK, nothing’s wrong, we can get over it,'” he recalls.
The 13-year-old girl grew up, became a historian, was a tourist guide and journalist in Berlin after the fall of the Wall, and tried to treat East German people as they treated her when she was a volcanic refugee in Iceland. “Now I think of the people of La Palma and I can understand that they are desperate,” he explains. “This is how people felt here when they saw their houses burn. Watching what they had worked for all their lives disappear in a few minutes. Many thought that everything would end badly, but after a while the situation changed. Even people who had lost their homes said: I want to live on this island, nowhere else. We will build another house. The important thing is that we are alive ”.
“La Palma can become modern Pompeii”
American geologist Richard Williams was at the eruption while working for the US Geological Survey, the veteran researcher issues a warning. “The Eldfell eruption was the second recorded on this island in the last 6,000 years. Volcanic activity on La Palma is much more frequent ”.
“The Heimaey people who lost their home and had it insured received no compensation because the insurers considered the eruption“ a fact of God, ”Williams explains. “One of the most important things that happened then is that the Icelandic Parliament agreed on a compensation plan so that these people could return to the starting box. It is something commendable that, for example, it did not happen in the United States after the Katrina tragedy ”, he highlights. In fact, the Heimaey eruption was the germ of the state insurance that today continues to compensate Icelanders who lose their homes and properties due to eruptions and other natural disasters. People are free to build wherever they want, they are only informed of the risks. The only exception are the areas of risk of snow avalanches. “On La Palma, the Government has a clear responsibility,” says Williams. “When the eruption has stopped, the construction of the area will have to be planned so that people who have lost their homes can have new ones in the area of their choice. I would say to the people of La Palma to look to the future with optimism and to be united. There is great potential for tourism, for example using houses half consumed by lava as a tourist attraction. La Palma can become a modern Pompeii ”, he points out. The Roman city ruins receive 2.5 million tourists each year and are one of Italy’s top tourist attractions, according to Reuters.
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