Extremely heavy ashfall rained down on parts of the Caribbean island of St Vincent on Saturday and a strong sulfur smell enveloped communities, a day after a powerful explosion at La Soufriere volcano uprooted the lives of thousands who evacuated under government orders.
Caribbean countries including Antigua and Guyana offered help by either shipping emergency supplies or temporarily opening borders to the roughly 16,000 evacuees fleeing ash-covered communities.
The volcano, which last had a sizeable eruption in 1979, kept rumbling and experts warned explosions could continue for days or weeks. An eruption in 1902 killed about 1,600 people.
“The first bang is not necessarily the biggest bang this volcano will give,” Richard Robertson, a geologist with the University of the West Indies’ Seismic Research Center, said at a news conference.
Conditions worsened overnight in settlements near the volcano as ash covered homes, cars and streets. Lush green scenery had turned gray and gloomy, with people leaving footprints as they walked through the soot.
The prime minister, Ralph Gonsalves, told NBC Radio, a local station, that officials were trying to figure out how to remove the ash.
“It’s difficult to breathe,” Gonsalves said, adding that while the volcano’s venting had diminished, a big plume of ash and smoke remained. “What goes up must come down.”
He asked people to remain calm and keep protecting themselves from the coronavirus as he celebrated that no deaths or injuries were reported after the eruption in the northern tip of St Vincent, part of an island chain that includes the Grenadines and is home to more than 100,000 people.
“Agriculture will be badly affected and we may have some loss of animals and we will have to do repairs to houses, but if we have life and we have strength, we will build it back better, stronger, together,” he said.
Gonsalves has said it could take up to four months for life to return to normal. About 3,200 people were staying in 78 government shelters while four empty cruise ships floated nearby, waiting to take evacuees to nearby islands. Those staying in shelters were tested for Covid-19, and anyone testing positive would be taken to an isolation center.
The first explosion occurred on Friday morning, a day after the government ordered mandatory evacuations based on warnings from scientists who noted seismic activity before dawn on Thursday that meant magma was on the move close to the surface.
An ash column burst more than 33,000ft into the sky. Lightning crackled through the still-towering cloud late on Friday.
The ash forced the cancellation of flights and poor visibility limited evacuations in some areas. Officials warned that Barbados, St Lucia and Grenada could see light ashfall as the 4,003ft volcano continued to rumble. The majority of ash was expected to head north-east into the Atlantic ocean.
La Soufriere had an effusive eruption in December, prompting experts from around the region to analyze the formation of a new volcanic dome and changes to its crater lake, among other things.
The eastern Caribbean has 19 live volcanoes, including two underwater near the island of Grenada. One of those, Kick ’Em Jenny, has been active in recent years. But the most active volcano of all is Soufriere Hills in Montserrat. It has erupted continuously since 1995, razing the capital, Plymouth, and killing at least 19 people in 1997.