La Soufrière volcano has fired an enormous amount of ash and hot gas in the biggest explosive eruption since volcanic activity began on the eastern Caribbean island of St Vincent late last week, with officials worried about the lives of those who have refused to be evacuated.
Experts called it a “huge explosion” that generated pyroclastic flows down the volcano’s south and south-west flanks in the early hours of Monday.
“It’s destroying everything in its path,” Erouscilla Joseph, the director of the University of the West Indies’ Seismic Research Centre, said. “Anybody who has not heeded the evacuation needs to get out immediately.”
There were no immediate reports of injuries or death, but government officials were scrambling to respond to the latest eruption, which was even bigger than the first eruption that occurred Friday morning.
Approximately 16,000 people who live in communities close to the volcano had been evacuated under government orders on Thursday, but an unknown number have remained behind and refused to move.
Richard Robertson, with the Seismic Research Centre, told the local station NBC Radio that the volcano’s old and new dome had been destroyed and a new crater had been created. He said the pyroclastic flows would have razed everything in their way.
“Anything that was there – man, animal, anything – they are gone,” he said. “And it’s a terrible thing to say it.”
Joseph said the latest explosion was equivalent to the one that occurred in 1902 and killed about 1,600 people. The volcano previously erupted in 1979. Ash from the latest explosions has fallen on Barbados and other nearby islands.
The volcanic activity has threatened water and food supplies, with the government forced to drill for fresh water and distribute it via trucks.
“We cannot put tarpaulin over a river,” said Garth Saunders, the minister of the island’s water and sewer authority, referring to the impossibility of trying to protect current water sources from falling ash.
He told NBC Radio that officials were trying to set up water distribution points.
Meanwhile, the prime minister, Ralph Gonsalves, said government officials are meeting Monday afternoon to talk about difficulties with food supplies.
Cots, tents, water tanks and other basic supplies were flooding into St Vincent as nearby countries rushed to help those affected by the eruptions.
At least four empty cruise ships were waiting nearby to take evacuees to other islands that have agreed to temporarily receive them, including Antigua and Grenada. All government sea port employees were asked to report to work.
Gonsalves told NBC Radio on Sunday that his government would do everything possible to help those forced to abandon their homes in ash-filled communities.
“It’s a huge operation that is facing us,” he said. “It’s going to be costly, but I don’t want us to penny pinch ... this is going to be a long haul.”
Gonsalves said it could take four months for life to go back to normal in St Vincent, part of an archipelago that includes the Grenadines. The majority of the 100,000 inhabitants live in St. Vincent.
The Covid pandemic has also complicated response efforts. At least 14 new cases have been reported since the eruptions began on Friday, and all those going to shelters are being tested. Those who test positive are taken to isolation centres. More than 3,700 people are in 84 government shelters.
The eastern Caribbean has 19 live volcanoes, 17 of those located on 11 islands. The remaining two are underwater near Grenada, including one called Kick’Em Jenny that has been active in recent years.
The most active volcano of all is Soufrière Hills in Montserrat, which has been erupting continuously since 1995, destroying the capital of Plymouth and killing at least 19 people in 1997.