"" Writer's Wanderings: Heimaey's Volcano Eruption of 1973

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Heimaey's Volcano Eruption of 1973

It was difficult to imagine as we strolled the streets of the quiet fishing town on Heimaey what it must have been like to suddenly be awakened  that January 23 morning of 1973 at 2 a.m. with a violent shaking of the earth and realize that hot lava was beginning to flow. A lot of good happened along with the bad in the days to follow.

The earthquake that startled the town awake caused a mile long fissure in the earth. With lava spewing into the air, the townspeople gathered in the harbor. Luckily all the fishing boats were there because of a storm that had them heading for the harbor the previous day. Evacuation began. Some planes were used as well to take out the elderly and infirm throughout the night. Even many of the sheep on the island were evacuated. In all about 5,000 islanders were safely removed and a small contingent of brave souls left behind to observe and address the situation that threatened to destroy their town and harbor.

Within a week, the town was buried under 12-15 feet of ash. When we think of ash, we think of soft bits of charred material that float in the air. Not so with volcanic ash. It is made of small cinders that rain down like hail as you can see in the pictures of the area we visited that is now being made into an outdoor museum. But the ash was only half the problem. Hot lava buried 70 homes and another 41 were set on fire by the lava.

It was apparent that as the volcano continued to flow the harbor would be eventually be destroyed unless there was something they could do to stop the lava. Having observed the new little mouse island, Surtsey, that was formed in the 1960's, geologists considered the effect of the cool salt water on the hot lava and concluded that there might be a chance of stopping the lava flow if they could pour enough water on it. Eventually 19 miles of pipes and 43 pumps sprayed over eight million cubic yards of cooling sea water onto the lava flow for over five months saving the harbor and much of the town.

Still, 360 homes were destroyed. Many homes were literally dug out of the tons of ash covering them. As I said, there was some good news. The best was that no one was killed. And while there was a great deal of work to dig out many of the homes that were buried, the ash was a great base upon which they rebuilt the airport's runways and paved many new streets. The island had increased in size a little over a square mile adding new vistas to an already spectacular view.

Most everyone returned to the island helping one another to dig out and rebuild. The process was long and hard but I had the sense that this was truly an example of community. People helping people. You find that often when disasters take place especially in communities that have learned the importance of dependence on each other.

For a greater look into this amazing event, click on the link to the USGS report  on the Heimaey eruption. Even if you don't read through it all, there are some amazing pictures to see.

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