Officials: Massive volcano on St. Vincent and the Grenadines erupts as thousands evacuate

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A massive volcano erupted on St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the eastern Caribbean Friday, officials said, sending a giant cloud of smoke into the air as thousands hunkered down in shelters or fled on boats.

The University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center confirmed the volcano’s first eruption since 1979 at 8:41 a.m. on the nation’s main island, a day after authorities warned an explosion could be imminent and urged residents to get out of the danger zone however they could.

“The place is in a frenzy,” said Lavern King, who was making her way back to a shelter as black smoke darkened the sky. “People are still getting out of the red zone at this time.”

Scientists were closely monitoring the La Soufrière volcano, hoping Friday’s eruption was nothing more than a big gas explosion, while warning that a pyroclastic flow was still possible. Such eruptions spew fast-moving volcanic ash, lava droplets and hot gas that can incinerate whatever they touch instantly. A leading Caribbean geologist and the country’s prime minister warned the danger could linger for weeks, if not months.

“This is not simply going to be like a hurricane where it might be a seven day business,” Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said. “Depending on the extent of the explosion and the damage done, it could be four months.”

The Caribbean community responded by sending boats to evacuate residents and offering refuge in neighboring islands. Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line were sending ships to help evacuate people, representatives from both companies said. The National Emergency Management Organization said heavy ash and poor visibility was getting in the way of the evacuation efforts on Friday.

“The way in which people in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and ordinary people in Grenada, Dominica, St. Lucia and Antigua have responded to put people in their homes, strangers— bring tears to my eyes,” an emotional Gonsalves said. “Amazing. On this dangerous road to Jericho, we have the good Samaritans.”

There were no immediate reports of injuries Friday on the islands, home to about 110,000 people, around 7,000 of which reside in areas located within the evacuation zone, officials said.

The pandemic is likely to complicate the response to the eruption. In recent months, St. Vincent and the Grenadines has grappled with an increase in infections, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told travelers to avoid the island chain, which is popular with yachters. The government reminded those entering shelters to wear masks and said that anyone fleeing on a cruise ship or taking refuge in a hotel would need to show proof of vaccination against the virus.

“We don’t want to have an outbreak of COVID,” Gonsalves said.

The La Soufrière volcano began showing signs of activity in late December 2020, when scientists observed a lava dome forming, an early indication of an impending eruption. Since then, the island chain has been on alert, with the public advised to stay away from the volcano. An eruption in 1902 killed over 1,600 people, while another in 1979 gave residents a scare but resulted in no deaths.

Lesser Antilles volcanoes, like La Soufrière, are known to experience potentially deadly pyroclastic flow activity, Florida International University earth sciences expert Grenville Draper said.

“That kind of eruption occurred in 1902 in Martinique,” Draper said, referring to the disaster in the which up to 30,000 in the French island were killed within minutes. “I don’t want to alarm anybody but if this turns into a major eruption, it could produce those, which are the volcanologists’ worst fears.”

Experts cautioned Friday that it was too early to tell whether the eruption would be an isolated event or a prolonged and potentially catastrophic one. The last big volcanic eruption in the region took place in 1995.

After centuries of being dormant, Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano erupted and buried the island’s capitol, Plymouth, in more than 39 feet of mud. The airport and southern part of the eastern Caribbean island were destroyed and thousands permanently fled for the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“A lot of us thought that was going to be fairly a minor thing,” said Draper, who has studied volcanoes for over 30 years. “It turned into a major thing that lasted not just months but years.”

Even if La Soufrière’s eruption doesn’t result in flowing lava, Draper said there is the danger of ash piling up on rooftops and causing homes to collapse.

The University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center in Trinidad and Tobago, which has been closely monitoring the St. Vincent volcano, said there had been two eruptions by late Friday afternoon. The second appeared to produce a smaller plume of smoke than the first.

Lead geologist Richard E. A. Robertson of the UWI Seismic Research Center said that overnight the volcano began shaking until an eruption finally broke through.

“You can say it has cleared the throat of the volcano,” Robertson said during a live video feed during a press conference with the prime minister.

Robertson warned that while the country would experience periods of quiet, the explosion could soon restart and warned individuals living close to the mountain to evacuate.

“It’s possible you can have explosions that go higher in the atmosphere than this one,” he said, warning that ash can be expected every now and again. “The first one is not necessarily the worse one.”

Robertson said an early report on the ash clouds showed they expanded between 20 miles north and 50 miles southeast of St. Vincent and went up to 29,000 feet. Once the ash goes up in the air it falls back down. Most of the ash is expected to stay in the northern part of the country, but all depends on the wind direction.

The scientific team cautioned that neighboring islands can also expect to be impacted by volcanic ash. The volcanic ash also poses a significant threat to flight safety, scientists warned.

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Elizabeth Riley, executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, said as of Friday morning there were 1,827 evacuees in 49 government shelters. Another 600 people were moved out by boat. Ash had been recorded as far away as the Argyle International Airport Friday morning. La Soufrière is located on the northernmost third of St. Vincent island.

Officials declared a “red alert” on Thursday, warning an eruption was likely and urging residents to evacuate.

“Be calm. Do not panic,” Gonsalves said at the time. “With God’s grace, we will get through this very well.”

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The potential natural disaster on St. Vincent has mobilized the wider Caribbean community, as well as private industry. The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency is working with NEMO and has activated its regional response, which comprises of experts to support St. Vincent with the eruption. During the 1979 eruption, volcanic ash was reported in southern Saint Lucia and Barbados, UWI said.

The leaders of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, which consists of island nations in the region that share a common currency, have offered to take in evacuees even if they do not have a passport.

“The OECS countries, if you are going to them, you need only an identification card,” Gonsalves said. “This is an emergency situation and everybody understands that.”

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Gonsalves welcomed the Caribbean solidarity in his nation’s moment of need. Not only had the prime ministers of Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and Dominica reached out to say they would be ready to take in his citizens as early as Sunday, Gonsalves said so had families on those islands, which he found to be “touching.”

The nation is by no means wealthy, and had informed the World Bank that it would be utilizing money set aside for catastrophes from the Washington-based institution to assist its citizens. The United Nations announced its agencies were mobilizing to help with cash and ready to eat meals, and Coconut Creek-based Food for the Poor said it was air freighting disaster relief kits to help families.

Gonsalves, concerned about the hardships of shelters on those who are elderly and with special needs, implored them to move into hotels and guest houses, indicating that the government will help.

“It will cost more money but I don’t want the operation, and I made that clear, to be run as though it’s a penny pinching NGO operation,” he said.

But there was a caveat, the prime minister said.

“The hotels have been asking, that the persons who come into the hotels that they be vaccinated and that they be tested, which is not unreasonable in all the circumstances,” Gonsalves said.

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By Friday morning, Royal Caribbean Group’s Serenade of the Seas cruise ship was already anchored off the capital of Kingstown, St. Vincent, and its Celebrity Reflection ship was lingering further off shore.

Though the Royal Caribbean ships don’t have all the crew members necessary to accommodate 1,500 onboard each of the two ships, Royal Caribbean will be able to hold several hundred on each ship, Gonsalves said. The ships, he said, would transport evacuees to neighboring islands because they lacked the necessary crew to keep people housed onboard. A spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Line said its Carnival Paradise and Carnival Legend were both off the coast of St. Vincent and awaiting further instructions late Friday.

Gonsalves, who also activated government-run shelters and asked hotels to open their doors, warned Vincentians that the country —and the Caribbean— remains in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic. Residents were reminded to not only walk with their face masks, but told that cruise ships will require everyone to be vaccinated.

Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival, said while government officials in St. Vincent and the Grenadines have offered to do their best to make sure those who come aboard are tested and vaccinated for the coronavirus, the cruise line has not made this requirement.

“That is at their initiative,” Gulliksen said.

The nation has recorded 1,774 COVID-19 infections and 10 deaths. As of April 1, the country had administered a total of 10,805 COVID-19 vaccine doses, the World Health Organization said.

Gonsalves has implemented a somewhat controversial COVID-19 testing and vaccination policy, requiring public sector employees to submit proof of inoculation or be tested at least once every two weeks in order to work, measures some decry as a violation of constitutional rights.

Though it had been among the eastern Caribbean countries with low COVID-19 numbers, the Pan American Health Organization noted in February that St. Vincent and the Grenadines was reporting an increase in cases. Because of the current situation in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the CDC warns that even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants.

Gonsalves urged residents to take precautions as they prepared to evacuate.

“I do not want you to panic,” he said. “That is the worst thing to do.”

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Miami Herald reporter Taylor Dolven contributed to this report.

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