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Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Volcanic Eruptions — six long days of waiting

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Last week was my longest week ever. The long wait and the anxiety that went with it was enough to have paralysed me and declared me a nervous wreck. Thousands of miles

away from home and already feeling homesick, my anxiety to be in the comfort of my own space was increasing. I was counting the minutes, hours and days and looking forward to the journey back home.

Then suddenly, there was the least expected news. The April 14 volcanic eruption that was to cripple international air travel for almost a week came numbing the world.

The messages that greeted stranded passengers and kept many in limbo as one checked and rechecked on the status of flights into Europe were disappointing. Likely to be stranded, I called BA a few times and was told all lines were busy and that it may take as long as three hours to get someone to attend to me.

Passengers were advised to check online for the status of their flights. I paid for two weeks and now, it was almost certain that I would be offered an unsolicited extra week. This was beginning to cause me some anguish.

When the news of the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano in Iceland went round that regrettable day, throwing ice, smoke, steam, and ash into the air over a distance of five to six miles altitude, my simple mind told me that all would be over by the time I packed my last item and headed for my flight back home.

I took the issue lightly and thought there was too much noise about nothing. Even when the major international news bulletin kept showing graphical images of the eruption and the scenes of distressed passengers stranded at major airports around the world, I remained adamant and maintained that my flight was four days away and so I would not be affected.

I have never been stranded and never thought that I would ever be. Why? When the tragic events of September 11, 2001 occurred, I had left New York just two days earlier and thought I was lucky to have missed the anxiety, the shock and a flight delay as all US airports were closed for a couple of days or so.

As a typical Ghanaian, when the volcanic eruptions started two weeks ago and flights were being cancelled, I consoled myself with the usual cliché, “ebe ye yie”, meaning all will be well.

Within hours from the time the news first broke, the enormity of one of the puzzling acts of nature in living memory dawned on me. Graphic scenes of the eruption with sheets of fierce fire melting a thick layer of ice covering the volcano’s crater and sending flood water down, convinced me beyond all doubts that all will not be well after all. At least not for the next six days. The power of nature was indeed at work.

This force of nature was not only melting thick ice and creating floods but also burning the earth and sending thick smoke and a vast amount of ash into the atmosphere as if to throw a challenge to whoever dared come near.

As the world’s major airlines were counting their costs with a loss of $200 million a day during the first five days of the volcanic crisis, I was also moaning, counting how many more long days I had to wait. The boredom, the anxiety and the total disorientation that this particular act of nature had caused me was most aggravating but I had to resign to the comfort of yet another saying, “everything happens for a reason”.

Indeed there are enough consoling tales in the Bible and some chronicled testimonies of individuals and families to give adequate meaning to the thought that there is a reason, good or bad, behind every occurrence. However, when you find yourself in a situation like this, completely holed in someone’s land, with limited or no resources at all and literally stuck in a boxed corner. Such a philosophy is too bitter a pill to accept.

What even made things a bit difficult to digest was the intermittent news that kept coming in from learned Geophysics and Volcanologists that a new blast is overdue, going by history. Wow, so if history, as they say, is there to guide our future, then my new confirmed date which is another five idle days ahead was a bit shaky.

We were told that the Eyjaffallajokull Volcano in southern Iceland had been dormant for almost 200 years. For the three times that it erupted in AD 920, 1612 and 1821, the “witch” Katla Volcano blew up soon afterwards. The fear now was that once it had happened, the eruption could set off the nearby Katla Volcano; a far more violent beast capable of inflicting immense damage.

Oh boy! My anxiety level over the period did not stop gravitating towards the north with all the different theories about what may or may not happen during the “hostage period”. Consistently looking in rather than looking beyond, I was counting the minutes, the hours and the days, oblivious to the fact that it was a global calamity.

I definitely was becoming a nuisance to my boys. I could almost hear them say, “Doesn’t this woman understand what is going on around the world?” No, I did not care about the world. I cared about getting back home to enjoy my own space.

Feeling so jittery and occasionally pacing up with anxiety, I would open my suitcase, pack one thing or the other, only to take another out the next minute. There was some glimmer of hope, however, following the test flights carried by some major airlines in Europe.

Then I gave a deep sigh of temporary relief on Tuesday; five good days after the disruptions when some limited flights resumed. I hijacked the internet. I kept visiting the BA website, then switched to Delta Airlines for my plan B, only to return and also surf other sites intermittently for news; news of good tidings and great joy.

It was Wednesday when the UK airspace was opened. Then followed the opening of all UK airports. Flights had started from around the world into Heathrow. It sounded more like it for me. I prayed against any further eruptions. I wanted to get home but when will it be my turn to board a flight? I kept soliloquising.

The long, unsolicited, extra six days slapped on me was finally coming to an end. The consoling words, “it will be well” was now making more meaning. Before long, I was on my way home aboard the British Airways flight BA 0214 out of Boston into Heathrow. At this point, I knew that I had left behind Eyjafjallajokull and all the other “witch” volcanoes.

Iceland has definitely made history, come to think of it. It has been the centre of world focus and international headlines for nearly one week. Many of us who did not know where to locate Iceland before, can now close our eyes and point to its location on the world map.

The regrettable news, however, is that the event has caused one major blow to the airline industry which already was struggling and gradually picking up after the world recession. The historic event in Iceland left nearly 100,000 flights across the world cancelled; thousands of passengers stranded for days and a loss of millions of dollars in revenue for major airlines which are now asking their governments for a financial bailout.

The economic pinch has caused ripples in almost every country across the globe. Countries that thrive on income from tourism have been hit and so are export and import businesses.

African agricultural exports were not spared. Kenya’s thriving flower and vegetable exports meant for the European market suffered and so did Ghana’s pineapples meant for export. Individual businessmen and women who depend on inputs from other countries for their various industries have been counting huge losses.

The anxiety was definitely not mine alone. It was the headache of the entire world for the six days that the Icelandic volcano held commercial flights across the European airspace hostage. Incidentally, it is the worst breakdown in civil aviation in Europe since World War II.

History has been made and the losses will continue to be counted for many years to come. For me personally, it was the longest six days in my life.

Credit: Vicky Wireko/Daily Graphic/Reality Zone
Email: [email protected]

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