KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent and the Grenadines — A volcano in the southern Caribbean that had been dormant for decades erupted in a billowing blast of gray smoke Friday, spewing clouds of ash for miles and forcing thousands to evacuate. There were no immediate reports of casualties. The La Soufrière volcano last erupted in 1979, and a previous eruption in 1902 killed some 1,600 people.
Saint Vincent is an island that we have visited many times with our floating house and many Poles who sail in the Caribbean Grenadines – today it is struggling with the volcano Soufriere eruption. It is on this island that the filming of the film “Pirates of the Caribbean” with Johnny Depp was shot.
The La Soufrière volcano on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent erupted early Friday, sending nearly a six-mile high plume of ash into the air hours after residents were ordered to evacuate the area, officials said.
Photos and videos captured clouds of smoke coming out of the volcano about 8:40 a.m. as a thin layer of gray ash appeared to cover the surrounding area.
Emergency management officials said the ash column was about 32,000 feet high and that the ash was headed east into the Atlantic Ocean.
However, heavy ashfall also was reported in communities around the volcano, said Erouscilla Joseph, director of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre.
“More explosions could occur,” she said, adding that it was impossible to predict whether any potential upcoming explosions would be bigger or smaller than the first one.
Roughly 16,000 people live in the red zone and will need to be evacuated, Joseph said.
“Evacuation of people in the red and orange zones to safe areas continues in earnest,” St. Vincent’s National Emergency Management Organization said in a tweet. “Heavy ash fall has halted the process somewhat since visibility is extremely poor. NEMO continues to respond to the many challenges of the process.
“I want to urge all our people to be calm — do not panic,” the prime minister said. “With God’s grace we will get through this very well.”
As of Friday morning, close to 20,000 people had been evacuated from the area surrounding the volcano, according to officials.
The coronavirus may complicate evacuation efforts, however, according to Erouscilla Joseph, director of the University of the West Indies’ Seismic Research Center.
“The Covid pandemic is still ongoing and you’re talking about moving people for what may be weeks, possibly months,” Ms. Joseph said in a phone interview. “This is a huge cost in terms of a humanitarian effort.”
Prime Minister Gonsalves said on Thursday that in order to board the cruise ships sent to evacuate people from the island, evacuees must be vaccinated, while the nearby island nations that are planning to accept refugees will also require vaccinations.
Islands that have said they would accept evacuees include Antigua, St. Lucia, Grenada and Dominica.
On Thursday, Mr. Gonsalves had recommended that those who arrive in shelters on St. Vincent be vaccinated as well. He said they were trying to reduce the risk of infecting older people and those with disabilities by putting them in guesthouses, rather than in shelters, when possible.
“We don’t want to have an outbreak of Covid in the shelters,” he said.
Scientists warned that the eruption could continue over days and even weeks.
“Once it has started its possible you could have more explosions,” said Richard Robertson, a professor of geology at the University of the West Indies, during Friday’s news conference. “The first bang is not necessarily the biggest bang this volcano will give.”
The population of 95,000 people on the main island of St. Vincent had been on edge for months in fear of an eruption.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines has a population of 110,000 spread across three dozen islands. Most people live around the capital, Kingstown, on the southwestern coast of St. Vincent island. Though known as a boaters’ paradise, the country also has high rates of poverty and unemployment.
The volcano last erupted in 1979, and a previous eruption in 1902 killed some 1,600 people. La Soufrière, standing at 3,864 feet above sea level, also erupted in 1718, 1812 and 1814, according to the Seismic Research Centre.