The eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which saw the eruption of its La Soufrière volcano for the first time in 42 years, woke up Sunday to heavy ash fall everywhere, more explosive eruptions, minor earthquakes overnight and a new worry: the possible destruction of communities from heavy flows of lava droplets and hot gas.
Lead geologist Richard Robertson said while white-colored volcanic ash covered everything from rooftops and roads to the island’s vegetation, scientists with the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center were becoming increasingly concerned about the destruction of communities near the volcano.
A video obtained by the team, he said, showed evidence of pyroclastic flows — the fast-moving volcanic ash, lava droplets and hot gas that can incinerate everything in its path, instantly.
“They will tend to boil the sea and they will shoot across the sea as a foam of rapidly moving hot air,” Robertson said. “We don’t have lava flows, the nice flow, running things, that’s red... What we have is fragments of rocks, and boulders and other things that shoot down the mountainside very fast and destroy everything.”
Robertson said mountainside communities near La Soufrière not only have to ”survive the heavy ash, but now they have the potential of being destroyed by these flows that go down the mountainside.”
“These flows are really moving masses of destruction,” he said during an appearance on NBC radio in St. Vincent along with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves. “If you have the strongest house in the world, they will just bulldoze it off the ground.”
Emergency officials described the country as looking like “a battle-zone.”
Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves told the Miami Herald that the entire island of St. Vincent was covered in ash, and it was continuing to pour out of the volcano. It ranged from a few inches in the south to “between 8 and 10 feet” in the north.
“The eruptions are not over and if history is any guide, the eruptions will be continuing for the coming months,” Gonsalves said, shortly after another eruption was registered around 4:30 p.m. Sunday. “In 1979, it was about two-and-a-half months before people got the all clear and in 1902, the volcano apparently erupted for over eight months.”
Gonsalves added that while authorities had managed to evacuate most of the residents living in the danger zone, some insisted on staying and only finally agreed to leave after the explosions occurred.
“We’ve done a fairly comprehensive job of moving people although there are still one or two people who have decided to try and stick it out up there,” Gonsalves said.
This means that about 20,000 people have moved to the south of the island. About half are staying with friends and families in homes, and the other half are in schools, churches and community centers doubling as makeshift shelters.
Gonsalves conceded that conditions in the shelter are not ideal, and in an internal group message, he acknowledged that “many people are sleeping on the floor,” because a few thousands cots that the government had ordered were currently stuck in Miami waiting waiting clearance to be flown down as soon as the airspace opened.
“In this time of Covid, we’re worried about the number of people packed closely together,” he said in the Herald interview. “But conditions are slowly improving.”
Four cruise ships from Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line remain on standby in the harbor. They have volunteered to transport evacuees to neighboring islands. An assessment on interested evacuees is ongoing, although a Royal Caribbean ship on Sunday transported 200 of them to neighboring St. Lucia, Gonsalves said.
So far, there have been no reports of injuries or deaths. But with more explosions being forecast by scientists, he remained worried.
“We are hoping to get out of this with loss of life,” said the minister, whose father Ralph, 74, won his fifth consecutive term as prime minister in November for his ruling United Labor Party. “We will have to wait for the
explosions to finish before we can properly evaluate how much damage can be done in the north of the island.”
After decades of inactivity, the La Soufrière volcano began rumbling 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.
While the warning gave government officials time to prepare for the explosion, Gonsalves conceded that with about 20,000 people expected to be internally displaced for possibly months, it’s not financially sustainable for St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
“Covid has already dealt a serious body blow to the economy and it’s not sustainable for the country to be in Covid protocol and partially shut down because of the volcano and housing tens of thousands of people,” he said. “We’ve had some warning and put some money aside but certainly not enough to house this quantity of people for that period of time, no. We are going to have to rely, increasingly as time goes on, on our development partners and on our friends and allies.”
Some of those pledges of support have started to pour in. While neighboring islands have agreed to accept evacuees, St. Kitts and Nevis pledged $370,000 in financial assistance to help with the resettling of residents from the danger zone. Barbados Defense Force deployed a vessel with humanitarian supplies and on Monday morning a vessel was scheduled to arrive from Venezuela with emergency supplies, Gonsalves said.
“It’s been very humbling,” he said. “Support continues to pour in from near and far, and we’re going to need that because this is not something that’s going to be over in a week or two. We’d be lucky if it’s over in three or four months.”
The height of the eruption columns was taking the bulk of the ash into the upper atmosphere. In addition to blanketing St. Vincent, the plumes of volcanic ash and smoke moving through the atmosphere had also forced the closure of the island’s airspace and was also affecting the nearby islands of St. Lucia and Barbados, and possibly Grenada with dust clouds. Residents in St. Lucia were told be on the look out for a decline in air quality. In Barbados, residents were told stay indoors and if they must go outside, take protective measures.
“As bad as it is, it can be worse,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley told her nation Sunday as she asked Barbadians not to panic over the ash floating into their atmosphere.
Barbados’ Grantley Adams International Airport was also covered in volcanic ash. It is closed until noon Monday but could be extended based on the volcano’s eruption pattern. Mottley said an effort to clean up the ash at the airport had to be abandoned Sunday because the visibility had become so poor.
Showing a video of the Bridgetown port during the press conference, Mottley said, “you would believe this is snow day in Barbados.”
Robertson said scientists had started to collect samples of the ash in order to examine it and see what the potential health effects were. One impact was already visible.
“The environment has been really damaged badly by the heavy ash fall, and people’s property and structure would probably become damaged because of the ash,” he said.
On Thursday, officials in St. Vincent and the Grenadines ordered the evacuation of thousands of residents living in the red zone, warning that an explosion of the 4,049-foot foot volcano in the north of the island of St. Vincent could be imminent.
After the first explosion occurred at 8:41 a.m. Friday, authorities again warned people to leave. During the evacuation, emergency management personnel reported that low visibility, created by heavy plumes of ash and smoke, was getting in the way of the evacuation efforts. The blast from the volcano, sent plumes of ash 29,000 feet into the air, Robertson said.
A video shared on social media by Rochelle Baptiste Sunday showed the destruction of Arrowroot Factory in Owia, one of several communities in the volcano’s red zone that had been ordered to evacuate.
In the video, the ground is covered in black ash and the rooftop has totally collapsed, demolishing the factory. Other images showed a country covered in ashes as far south as the capital, Kingstown.
The country’s emergency management agency reported that in addition to a series of explosions overnight, there was also lightning, thunder and rumblings. The majority of St. Vincent was out of power and covered in ash, the National Emergency Management Office said.
“Day No. 3 and everything looks like a battle zone,” NEMO tweeted Sunday. “Dreary morning with the ash beginning to harden on the ground due to overnight showers. Many homes are still without water and electricity.”
Robertson said the explosions, and accompanying ash fall, and rumblings showed no indication that the event was waning, even with breaks in between. The volcano’s activity, he said, appeared to be following the pattern of the 1902 eruption that killed over 1,600 people and not 1979, which gave residents a scare but resulted in no deaths.
“That means that probably, unfortunately, it’s going to cause more damage and disruption to St. Vincent but it also means that there will always be that safe place in the southern parts of the country, which might have a lot of ash every now and again but you can still sustain life and limb,” Robertson said.
If there is a silver lining then it is that at least for now, it did not seem like the whole country was going to be destroyed even if the amount of devastation in the northern part of the island appeared that it was going to be significant.
On Sunday, rain started to fall. Even with the potential risk clogging the rivers and creating flooding, Robertson said the best thing that could happen to St. Vincent was “plenty of rainfall.”
“We want to get rid of it, get into the sea, in the river and go away so that it doesn’t affect us,” Robertson said. “The slightly bad part is we have so much of it that if and when it gets into the rivers... it could cause flooding of areas so therefore it might produce some negative impact.”