The Soufriere volcano on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent erupted Friday after decades of inactivity, sending dark plumes of ash and smoke skyward and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people from surrounding villages.
The volcano, dormant since 1979, began showing signs of activity in December, spewing steam and smoke and making noise. Activity intensified this week, prompting St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves to order an evacuation of the surrounding area late Thursday.
Early Friday morning it finally erupted. Ash and smoke plunged the surrounding area into near total darkness, blotting out the bright morning sun, said a Reuters witness, who reported hearing the explosion from Rose Hall, a nearby town.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with a population of just over 100,000, had not experienced volcanic activity since 1979. An eruption of La Soufriere in 1902 killed more than 1,000 people. Its name means “sulfur outlet” in French.
The eruption plume is estimated to have reached 10 km in height, according to the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center, which warned that other explosive eruptions could occur. Ash fall could affect the Grenadines, Barbados, St. Lucia and Grenada.
“The ash plume may cause flight delays due to diversions,” the center said on Twitter. “On land, the ash may cause discomfort to persons suffering from respiratory illnesses and will affect water resources.”
Some 4,500 residents near the volcano had already been evacuated via boats and by road, Gonsalves told a news conference on Friday. Heavy ash fall had somewhat halted evacuation efforts due to poor visibility, according to the St. Vincent National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO).
“The place in general is in a frenzy,” said Lavern King, 28, a shelter volunteer. “People are still being evacuated from the red zone, it started yesterday afternoon and into last night.”
Gonsalves said that, depending on the extent of the damage, it could be four months before evacuees could return home.
With tears in his eyes, he said neighboring islands, such as Dominica, Grenada and Antigua, had agreed to take in evacuees and that cruise lines could transport them, provided they were vaccinated first.
However, this could pose a challenge, said opposition Senator Shevern John, 42.
“People are very afraid of the vaccine and choose not to come to a shelter because they would eventually have to comply with the protocol,” he said. Shelters are also having to limit the number of evacuees they take in because of COVID-19 protocols.
Vincentians will have to wait for more scientific analysis to know what steps to take next, he said.
“It could last a few days or a few weeks,” he said. “At the moment, both ends of the island are covered in ash and very dark.”
Local media have also reported in recent days an increase in activity from Mount Pelee on the island of Martinique, which lies north of St. Vincent beyond St. Lucia.