Staging a disaster and restaging a community – the seismic crisis of El Hierro

In October 2011, El Hierro, the westernmost of the Spanish Canary Islands and home to around 11,000 people, experienced a volcanic crisis - its first documented seismic activity in two centuries. An underwater eruption, preceded by an increasing series of low-magnitude earthquakes, caused colouring of the sea, emission of gas, and floating ‘volcanic bombs’. Located offshore south of the fishing village and diving site of La Restinga, the eruption continued for five months.
For scientists, this was a rare chance to observe an eruption on the Canary Islands. Different hypotheses arose about the dangers, and a plan for civil protection came into effect that delegated responsibilities to various institutions. Some regional experts were excluded, and this caused a lasting dispute about ‘mismanagement’. The army was sent in and La Restinga was evacuated twice. Measures including a ban on fishing that affected tourism were viewed critically by some. El Hierro’s politicians were overwhelmed by the situation and worked hard to relay information, even though it was sometimes contradictory.
While the population faced a very unsettling, if fascinating, natural event (which thankfully caused no casualties), the situation triggered intense media coverage. Imagery of disembarking military forces and pictures of the boiling sea were combined with language like ‘poison gas alert’ or ‘explosive gas bubbles’. To this day, a number of blogs report continuing earthquakes. Maps depicting seismic events contribute to these disaster narratives, although most are below the threshold of perception. A viewpoint shared by most locals is that alarmist news coverage and the actions taken by authorities deterred tourism, which declined by around 60 per cent in two years, coinciding with the economic crisis in Spain - a double crisis that affected many livelihoods.
Framing El Hierro as a hazardous place damaged islanders’ well-being, and many coping strategies aimed at altering how the seismic event was represented. The local media, aware of the potential negative impact of a ‘disaster vocabulary’, are trying to manage the imagery they use. The authorities now refer to positive examples of volcanic activity (like Hawaii), and not the possible risks. Blogs reassure potential tourists that the island is safe and campaigns now highlight its volcanic origins.

Authors

Chapter 1 was written by Terry Cannon, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, UK, with the support of Fred Krüger, Institute of Geography, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany; Greg Bankoff, University of Hull; Lisa Schipper, Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute, London. The box was written by Benedikt Orlowski, Institute of Geography, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg.