Sandstorm Wreaks Havoc in Canary Islands

MADRID — Winds from the Sahara continued to send streams of sand drifting over the Canary Islands on Monday, creating chaos as the swirling sands forced planes to be grounded, disrupted traffic and exacerbated wildfires.

Ángel Víctor Torres, the regional president of the islands, which are a Spanish archipelago, told Spanish national television that it was the worst such storm to hit his islands in 40 years and described its arrival as “a nightmare weekend.”

He said on Monday that the situation remained worrying in at least four of the islands, including Gran Canaria, which faces the greatest threat of wildfires.

All of the archipelago’s seven airports had been shut on Saturday because of strong winds and low visibility, leaving thousands of tourists stranded. The Spanish operator of the main airport on Gran Canaria said it was resuming service on Monday, and other airports hoped to reopen later in the day.

Primary schools remained closed, with the authorities also advising residents to keep their windows shut and stay indoors, particularly people with respiratory problems.

The weather phenomenon, known as a calima, occurs when a burst of dusty, warm wind forms during sand storms in the Sahara and then crosses over from the African desert. The Canary Islands are in the Atlantic off the western coast of Morocco.

The weekend arrival of the calima brought wind speeds of more than 80 miles per hour to many parts of the archipelago and shrouded cars and buildings in red sand dust. In the smaller island of La Palma, fierce winds tore down lamp posts, palm trees and a wall along a main road, burying parked cars in debris.

The sandstorm reduced visibility so heavily in some places that many roads were closed, and drivers who did venture out crawled nearly to a halt as they struggled to see.

Manuel Campos, a 71-year-old entrepreneur who lives in Las Palmas, the capital of Gran Canaria, said by telephone that he had canceled a planned weekend beach outing and stayed in his house, in line with the authorities’ recommendation to avoid being outdoors.

“I’m old enough to know all about the calima, but I don’t recall it that strong,” he said. “Everything just turned red.”

In the archipelago’s main towns, those who braved the winds and took to the streets mostly shielded their faces with masks or neckerchiefs to avoid inhaling the red dust particles.

The strong winds also fueled the spread of wildfires on the islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria, with one blaze consuming a banana plantation on La Palma.

On Gran Canaria, a fire destroyed hundreds of acres of land over the weekend and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people. With pilots unable to fly aircraft to assist firefighters on the ground, the fire continued to burn, threatening to spread further into the Inagua nature reserve.

The Canary archipelago is one of Spain’s main tourist destinations, particularly in the winter months, when it attract sun seekers from colder parts of Europe. The weekend airport closings brought chaos for holiday makers trying to leave or reach the islands, particularly for thousands of British families as it coincided with a British school holiday.

While some tourists told British media outlets that they had faced surreal weather in the Canary Islands, comparing it to an apocalypse, locals said it was not akin to a major natural disaster. “There’s less visibility on the street, but nothing that stops normal life,” said Santiago Ceballos, a resident of Gran Canaria.

Canary islanders are familiar with the orange hue provoked by a calima, but it is rarely felt with such intensity. Local newspapers compared the weekend chaos to that of January 2002, when another calima also forced the temporary closing of the airports.

The latest Saharan winds also disrupted the preparations of Carnival festivities, one of the highlights of the year on the islands. Several early events were canceled and some outdoor structures were temporarily dismantled, though organizers said they were confident that the main street parades would take place as scheduled this week.

With rain forecast in the coming days on the islands, Spain’s weather agency said that red rain, in the form of downpours filled with red dust, could help put out the fires and remove the dust from the air.

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