Silmo Pestana. Government delegate in the Canary Islands. Born in 1965, he was La Palma Representative, Senator, Cabildo President and since 2020 he has been a government delegate.
– On September 19, 2021 at noon, where were you and how did you experience it?
– I attended the emergency monitoring committee meeting in Pevolka. There was a high level of uncertainty, and scientists weren’t very clear to us whether an eruption was very imminent and evacuations had begun. I had arrived home, and my wife and I were preparing food, and at that moment the UME captain called me and told me that they had reached the port of Santa Cruz de la Palma and told me that the volcano had just erupted. I finished lunch as quickly as possible, they already told me from Moncloa that the prime minister was going to La Palma the next day and I remember that on my mobile I started looking in Google Earth to find out the exact point of the eruption and for orthographically determine where the lava could go. Then I realized it was one of the worst potential locations for an eruption because of the amount of damage it would do. True, I didn’t imagine how much damage it caused, because the comparison was with the San Juan volcano, more than with the Teguya volcano, but at least in San Juan the lava flow was narrower and produced a platform out to sea. This, however, widened a lot and the damage was enormous. Initial forecasts, which were already worrisome, indicated that it would be an eruption that would change our history.
– Given the perspective of time, did those predictions fail, and above all, did the level at which the risk-traffic signal was found failed?
-I think no. This was done with the knowledge that was available at the time. With the advice of the scientists, what was appropriate was done, such as starting to evacuate people with mobility problems. It is true that it was thought that the volcanic eruption would be to the south which exacerbated the risks and damages. With the data of that moment, the decisions were appropriate and timely. It is a science that still needs to be deepened and it is important that we equip ourselves with more advanced media and that Spain is at the fore. The Canary Islands is a very active volcanic region and for the development of our land and our people, the best thing we can do is invest in science.
– You mentioned San Juan and Tenegua, which are in the memory of many cheerleaders. But has it been assumed that there is a volcano of such dimensions on the island?
The eccentricity, with whom I lived for a little over five years, confused us a little. It was a volcano, so to speak, benign, affecting only the area of viticulture and little; It was more than just a show and it was short time. The obvious thing is that volcanic danger exists and in our history. When the first Castilians settled, they chose an area to the north of the first lava flow they imagined they saw, which was Tacande, which erupted shortly before the invasion. We have to live with this danger and the opposite is to have the means to confront it, including the economic means to overcome it. In that sense, I think things have gone well.
The beginning of the crisis
“With the data of that moment, the decisions were appropriate and at the right time.”
– We all remember those first words from the volcano-affected Palmeros to the King and Queen of Spain, meaning that they must not forget the island when the volcano came out. Has it been fulfilled?
-The president and the ministers keep coming, it’s on the agenda of the Government of Spain … We have events, such as the opening of the school year in La Palma.
– But beyond gestures, was the aid directed in a timely manner? Because there are still people complaining that nothing has arrived.
Well… there is a little bit of everything. I tell you the help was processed in record time. We are talking, between the Government of Spain and the Canary Islands, about more than 450 million euros already mobilized, and we are talking about 230 million from the Insurance Union, which is a public entity; Here in the delegation we paid more than 26 million dollars. More than 500 families have already received aid… all in record time. About 180 petitions were rejected, the rest being those with justification problems. We will continue to advance but the vast majority of people have received assistance and about 300 people are receiving homes, between those that have been delivered and the modules in progress. Those who are homeless are now in hotels, there are household goods aids, there are ERTEs, with more than 1,700 people protected, up to 800 people protected through cessation of self-employment, and a 63 million employment scheme. All this explains why, after the greatest damage to the economy of La Palma in its history, we have gone from about 9,000 unemployed to 6,000. This is unusual in order to protect the state.
“The volcano has already become an important location for the island, as happened with Teneguía”
– In recent months, even with the active eruption, many people went to La Palma for tourism to see the volcano. Will the island, from the point of view of tourists, end with something positive from this crisis?
We have to take the positive out of the negative. The volcano has already become an important island location, as has Teneguía. Something similar should happen and I hope we can agree on an almost state-of-the-art visitor center. We have a story to tell and continue to be a geological attraction.
– How was the coexistence between experts and politicians? I suppose these wanted immediate solutions and the first ones sometimes didn’t give them.
The direction was led by the Minister of the Presidency, Julio Perez, and I think he did it very well. There was a lot of generosity on the scientific side, because they knew how to get along despite their obvious differences. This helped create unity and a sense of responsibility, and I believe the unity of science and institutions was the great learning of the volcano. I think the picture that was shown outside was good for that unit in the emergency phase. The agreement at the Conference of Presidents in La Palma to strengthen civil protection goes through something seen in this case, which is the importance of incorporating science in emergency situations.
– In such a politically polarized Spain, even during the worst period of the pandemic, how did the miracle of institutional cooperation between the Government of Spain from the PSOE and Podemos, a four-party Canarian government, Cabildo Palmero ruled jointly with the Socialists and the PP, work? And city councils with mayors from CC (El Paso), PP (Los Llanos) and NC (Tazacorte? Did this agreement help Cabildo, for example?
-Probably. The political conditions have helped us to cooperate more actively, but I think, at least in the first phase, that the suffering of the population in the Aridan Valley made it difficult to understand that there were political differences. We had to be all together, do our best, strengthen the security services, rely on the army with its three branches, the scientific part, all the departments … There was also the mobilization of affection and solidarity from many people that forced us to take responsibility.
“The tuningya was a volcano, so to speak, benign, affecting only the vineyard area”
Will this unified political response be lost with the approach of the May 2023 elections?
-He has all the theories.
– Will the administration after the explosion be an electoral banner?
-I think the Canary Alliance is in this trick. Unfortunately we saw criticism, false information was given, promises were made that were difficult to keep, never made when they ruled, and there were other misfortunes. There are obviously many things to do but that will be expressed when times of nature permit. Example: The president was criticized for his visit, which was in response to a commitment he made to follow through, and what we see is that the mayor of El Paso is skeptical that the president is going to “take a picture”, when that mayor came running, choking to take that photo with the president And with the crews that were working in the area. I think we should not lose the sense of responsibility and knowing how to be and I think people will appreciate loneliness more than these fireworks.
– What can the fact that the volcanic center is here in the Canary Islands, regardless of which island hosts it, contribute?
First, it is in the decentralization strategy that I fully support. I think that making a country also means that we all share institutions and are not concentrated in one or two capitals. And the Canary Islands is the only volcanically active area of our country, so it is a real “laboratory”, and therefore it is quite logical that it is here. From here to follow up and attack all lines of investigation in order to know better and make the right decisions when there is another emergency.
“I already realized that it was one of the worst potential locations for an eruption because of the amount of damage that would be done.”
– Was there not a sin of being overly cautious in restraints in Puerto Naos nor Pompillas because of the gases?
I support the institutions in the decisions they make. You have to be careful. The worst news we can get is that someone died because the measures were lenient.