Explosive eruption rocks volcano on St. Vincent within the Caribbean

AN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – An explosive eruption rocked La Soufriere volcano on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent on Friday following mandatory evacuation orders from the local government.

Emergency management officials said the column of ash was about four miles (6 kilometers) high and the ashes had been directed east into the Atlantic.

However, Erouscilla Joseph, director of the Seismic Center at the University of the West Indies, also reported heavy ash fall in communities around the volcano.

“There could be more explosions,” she said, adding that it was impossible to predict whether potential impending explosions would be larger or smaller than the first.

There were no immediate reports of victims.

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

The new eruption came after evacuation orders issued on Thursday for people living near the volcano. Officials planned to get them aboard cruise ships, send them to nearby islands, or take them to emergency shelters in St. Vincent that are out of harm’s way.

About 16,000 people live in the red zone and need to be evacuated, Joseph said.

The pandemic could hinder evacuation efforts.

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said at a press conference that people need to be vaccinated when boarding a cruise ship or temporarily seeking refuge on another island. He said two Royal Caribbean cruise lines are expected to arrive on Friday and a third one in the coming days, as well as two Carnival cruise lines on Friday. Islands that have announced it will accept evacuees include St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados and Antigua.

“Not everything will be perfect, but if we all work together … we will get through this stronger than ever,” said Gonsalves.

He noted that he was speaking to Caribbean governments to accept people’s IDs when they do not have a passport.

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

Gonsalves added that he would highly recommend those who choose a shelter in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a chain of islands with more than 100,000 people, to get vaccinated.

According to Joseph, emergency management teams went to communities in the red zone and provided supplies to safer places, including pre-arranged shelters.

“They know who has no transportation because all of this has been advertised before,” she said, adding that those who board the cruise ship would not be taken elsewhere but would stay there for an unspecified period of time.

Late Thursday night, the shelters filled as a series of car lights made their way to safer ground that sparkled through the dark mountains.

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 about the state of affairs. “We are overloaded,” he replied, noting that the shelter could hold 75 people and was already full.

Government officials tweeted that the volcano’s dome in the northern region of the island could glow when dark. The warning issued on Wednesday follows days of seismic activity around La Soufriere.

Gonsalves urged people to stay calm and orderly.

“I don’t want you to panic,” he said. “That’s the worst.”

Scientists made the government aware of a possible eruption after they detected some sort of seismic activity at 3 a.m. on Thursday that indicated that “magma was moving near the surface,” Joseph said.

“Things are escalating pretty quickly,” she said of the volcanic activity, adding that it was impossible to give an accurate forecast of what could happen in the next few hours or days.

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

The Eastern Caribbean is home to other active volcanoes. 17 of the region’s 19 living volcanoes are on 11 islands, with the remaining two submerged near the island of Grenada, including one called Kick ‘Em Jenny, which has been active in recent years.

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

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