Volcano Erupts on Island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent and the Grenadines – A decade-long dormant volcano in the southern Caribbean erupted in billowing gray smoke on Friday, spitting clouds of ash for miles and forcing thousands to evacuate.

The volcano known as La Soufrière on the northern tip of the main island of St. Vincent in St. Vincent and the Grenadines showed signs of renewed activity in late December.

It was in an “explosive state” on Friday morning, said the National Emergency Management Organization in a Twitter posting.

The emergency management agency said the ash fall had been recorded as far as the country’s international airport in the southern part of the island – more than 12 miles away – while a plume of ash had billowed 20,000 feet above the Atlantic.

The morning outbreak was followed about six hours later by a “second explosive outbreak” that was not as extensive, the agency said.

Video clips captured in Chateaubelair, a town at the foot of the volcano, showed the sky darkened by ash as people in face masks trudged through the streets hauling their belongings. Other clips posted on social media showed houses and streets covered in gray and white ash.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the eruptions and the extent of the damage to the area was unclear.

The eruptions came the day after officials raised the alert after several small tremors were detected at the volcano and clouds of steam broke up from its summit. The country’s Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves ordered a full evacuation of the area.

“All arrangements have now begun and the process begins,” Gonsalves said at a press conference on Thursday.

“I would like to urge all of our people to be quiet – don’t panic,” said the Prime Minister. “With God’s grace we will get through this very well.”

According to officials, almost 20,000 people had been evacuated from around the volcano by Friday morning.

However, coronavirus can complicate evacuation efforts, according to Erouscilla Joseph, director of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center.

“The Covid pandemic is still going on and you are talking about moving people for weeks, possibly months,” Ms Joseph said in a telephone interview. “This is an enormous cost factor for humanitarian aid.”

Prime Minister Gonsalves said Thursday that evacuees need to be vaccinated in order to board the cruise ships that have been sent to evacuate people from the island, while nearby island states that want to take in refugees will also need vaccinations.

Islands that have announced it will accept evacuees include Antigua, St. Lucia, Grenada and Dominica.

“Amazingly, on this dangerous road to Jericho, we have the good Samaritans,” said Gonsalves at a press conference on Friday. “It shows that we are a Caribbean family.”

On Thursday, Mr Gonsalves recommended that those arriving in emergency shelters in St. Vincent also get vaccinated. He said they were trying to reduce the risk of infecting the elderly and disabled by placing them in guest houses rather than shelters wherever possible.

“We don’t want an outbreak of Covid in the shelters,” he said.

Scientists warned that eruptions could last for days and even weeks.

“Once it starts, there could be more explosions,” Richard Robertson, professor of geology at the University of the West Indies, said during the news conference on Friday. “The first bang is not necessarily the biggest bang this volcano will make.”

Some of the most devastating volcanic eruptions are part of the history of the Caribbean’s mountainous islands. In 1995, the Soufrière Hills volcano on Montserrat, British territory, came back to life after more than three centuries of calm. Over the next two years, it would bury half of the 39 square miles island in ash and rock, including the capital, Plymouth, and render much of Montserrat uninhabitable.

Grenville Draper, a geologist at Florida International University, called it “the last really long-lived eruption” in the region.

In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the main island’s population of 95,000 had been on the verge of fear of their volcano erupting for months.

Some still vividly remembered the last La Soufrière eruption in 1979, which hurled debris thousands of feet but did not cause any deaths thanks to a hastily arranged evacuation of residents to local beaches. Its ashes reached as far as Barbados, 100 miles east. An earlier outbreak in 1902 killed nearly 1,700 people.

Cecilia Jewett, 72, a road warden with the St. Vincent and the Grenadines government, said she suffered from the 1979 outbreak and remembered the scenes of panic and desperate search for water, the ash-darkened sky and the overwhelming stench of sulfur. Her father, she said, survived the fatal event of 1902 and told stories of victims buried in ashes and bodies lying on the streets.

“These stories come back to my mind when I heard that La Soufrière was behaving,” she recalled the interview last December. “It’s just too much. These young people wouldn’t understand. They think it’s just an explosion. “

“The sulfur, what it does to your eyes, your breathing, your existence,” she continued. “It was a time I didn’t want to relive.”

St. Vincent and the Grenadines have 110,000 inhabitants on three dozen islands. Most of the people live in the capital Kingstown on the southwest coast of the island of St. Vincent.

Ernesto Cooke reported from Kingstown and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City.

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