Explosive eruption rocks volcano on Caribbean’s St. Vincent

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – An explosive eruption rocked La Soufrière volcano on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent on Friday after the government ordered thousands to evacuate their homes nearby.

Experts said the first explosion shot a pillar of ash 10 kilometers into the sky and that most of the ash was directed northeast into the Atlantic Ocean. Lightning crackled through the towering smoke and ash column late on Friday.

Heavy ash rain has been reported in communities around the volcano and beyond, with authorities saying some evacuations were restricted by poor visibility.

Several flights were also canceled and islands like Barbados, St. Lucia and Grenada prepared for light ash rains as the 1,220-meter-high volcano rumbled on. Authorities reported two more explosions later Friday as the island prepared for possible additional activity.

“There could be more explosions,” said Erouscilla Joseph, director of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center, in a telephone interview, adding that it was impossible to predict whether they were larger or smaller than the explosions that have occurred so far.

There were no immediate reports of victims of the eruption that occurred four days prior to the 42nd anniversary of the last major eruption.

In the coastal town of Barrouallie, about 14 kilometers from the volcano, evacuees trudged to accommodation with backpacks, duffel bags and shopping bags full of personal items after the explosion. Some prepared to stay there while others were expected to board cruise ships and go to nearby islands that have offered assistance.

Others were still waiting to be transported to a shelter, including a family who stood by the roadside in the sun with their children and suitcases for at least an hour while they waited for a lift.

The volcano last erupted in 1979, and an earlier eruption in 1902 killed around 1,600 people.

The new eruption followed the mandatory evacuation orders issued on Thursday for the roughly 16,000 people who live in the red zone near the volcano in the north of the island. More than 2,000 people stayed in 62 state accommodation.

“We had hiccups here and there … but by and large we are making pretty good progress,” Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said at a press conference. He later wiped the tears from his eyes and apologized for the crying while thanking the people and other governments in the area for opening their homes and lands to St. Vincentians.

“On the dangerous road to Jericho we have the good Samaritans,” he said.

He said it could take up to four months for things to return to normal, depending on the damage caused by the explosion.

As dozens of people poured into safer areas, officials feared the pandemic could hamper evacuation efforts.

Gonsalves said people need to be vaccinated when boarding a cruise ship or temporarily finding refuge on another island. He said two Royal Caribbean cruise ships and two Carnival Cruise Lines arrived on Friday. Islands that have announced it will accept evacuees include St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados and Antigua.

He said he had spoken to Caribbean governments to accept ID cards from people who do not have passports.

“This is an emergency and everyone understands,” he said.

Gonsalves added that he strongly recommends vaccination for anyone who chooses a shelter in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a chain of islands with more than 100,000 people. Authorities said those who are in shelters will be tested for COVID-19 and anyone who tests positive will be taken to an isolation center.

Emergency management teams in communities in the red zone have departed and provided transportation to safer locations, including pre-arranged accommodation, according to Joseph.

Late Thursday evening, the shelters filled as a series of car lights twinkled through the dark mountains en route to safer ground.

John Renton, a school principal in charge of an animal shelter, said in a phone interview that they had lots of masks and other personal protective equipment, but needed more cots. During the conversation, he was interrupted by a call from a government official asking him about the state of affairs. “We are overloaded,” he replied, noting that the shelter could accommodate 75 people and was already full.

Meanwhile, the government warned of water shortages as people stocked up after the warning.

Scientists alerted the government of a possible eruption after detecting some sort of seismic activity at 3 a.m. on Thursday, suggesting that “magma was traveling near the surface,” Joseph said.

A team from the seismic research center arrived in St. Vincent in late December after the volcano erupted heavily. Among other things, they analyzed the formation of a new volcanic dome, changes in its crater lake, seismic activity and gas emissions.

Seventeen of the Eastern Caribbean’s 19 living volcanoes are on 11 islands, with the remaining two underwater near Grenada Island, including one called Kick ‘Em Jenny, which has been active for the past few years.

The region’s most active volcano in recent years has been the Soufriere Hills in Montserrat, which has erupted continuously since 1995, devastating the capital, Plymouth, killing at least 19 people in 1997.