SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO >> People who ignored an initial warning about the evacuation of the area closest to a volcano on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent rushed to be released on Saturday, the day after an explosion erupted in the The ground shook, spat ash into the sky, and covered the island with a layer of fine volcanic rock.
The La Soufrière eruption on Friday – the first major since 1979 – turned the island’s lush towns and villages into gloomy, gray versions of themselves. A strong smell of sulfur was inevitable on Saturday and ash covered everything, crawling into houses, cars and noses and masked the sunshine that makes the island so popular with tourists.
Chellise Rogers, who lives in the village of Biabou, in what is believed to be a safe area of St. Vincent, said she could hear an incessant rumble.
“It’s exhilarating and scary at the same time,” she said. “(It is) the first time that I have observed a volcanic eruption.”
Scientists warn that the explosions could last days or even weeks and that the worst may yet be ahead.
“The first bang isn’t necessarily the biggest bang this volcano will make,” said Richard Robertson, a geologist at the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center, during a press conference.
About 16,000 people had to flee their ash-covered communities with as much belongings as possible in suitcases and backpacks. However, there are no reports of anyone being killed or injured in the first explosion or subsequent explosions. Before it exploded, the government ordered people to evacuate the most vulnerable area around the 1,220-meter volcano after scientists warned that magma was moving near the surface.
Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of the 32 islands that make up the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said on local NBC Radio that people should stay calm, be patient and keep trying to protect themselves from the coronavirus. He said officials were trying to figure out the best way to collect and dispose of the ashes that covered a runway near the capital Kingstown, about 20 miles south, and fell as far as Barbados, about 120 miles ) eastward.
“It’s hard to breathe,” said the prime minister, adding that although the volcano has vented less, it has left a large cloud of ash. “What goes up has to come down again.”
Although Gonsalves said it could take up to four months for life to return to normal, he is confident it will.
“Agriculture will be badly hit and we can lose some animals and we have to make repairs to houses. But when we have the life and the strength, we will build it better and stronger together, ”he said.
People who ignored the original evacuation order rushed to do so on Saturday. At least some of the ash-covered evacuees escaped in small boats and made their way to other parts of the main island, which makes up 90% of the total area of the country.
About 3,200 people sought refuge in 78 government-run shelters, and four empty cruise ships stood ready to transfer other evacuees to nearby islands, with a group of more than 130 already being transferred to St. Lucia. Those in the shelters were tested for COVID-19, with anyone who was taken to an isolation center tested positive.
Neighboring countries, including Antigua and Grenada, also offered to take in evacuees.
On Saturday, some people swept in front of their homes and taped their doors and windows in hopes of keeping the ashes out.
“We hear a rumble from here and saw the lightning last night,” said Rukersha Jackson, a 22-year-old marketer who lives with her family just outside the mandatory evacuation zone. This zone covers the northern third of St. Vincent and is on the opposite side of Kingstown, where most of the country’s more than 100,000 residents live.
The ash has forced the cancellation of several flights and poor visibility has restricted evacuation in some areas. Officials warned that ashes could easily fall to St. Lucia in the north and Grenada in the south, although most of it should end up northeast into the Atlantic Ocean.
Although the ashes can seem scary, it does not harm healthy people in the short term, said Claire Horwell, a professor at Durham University in the UK who will analyze the ashes emitted by La Soufrière. She recommended that people wear face masks, long sleeves, and pants to avoid irritation.
“Volcanic ash looks really scary and is really terrifying to people who have never been exposed to it before, but it’s more of a nuisance to most healthy people,” said Horwell, who is also the director of the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network.
However, she warned that the ashes and gases, especially sulfur dioxide, could harm asthmatics and others with chronic illnesses.
La Soufrière last had a major eruption in 1979. Around 1,600 people were killed in an eruption in 1902.
The volcano had a small eruption in December, which led to regional experts flying in to analyze, among other things, the formation of a new volcanic dome and changes in its crater lake.
There are 19 living volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean, including two underwater near Grenada. One of them, Kick ‘Em Jenny, has been active for the past few years. But the most active volcano of all is Soufrière Hills in Montserrat. It has erupted continuously since 1995, devastating the capital Plymouth and killing at least 19 people in 1997.