ST JOHN’S, ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA (AFP) – A volcano that has been dormant for decades erupted Friday (April 9) on Saint Vincent, darkening skies over the Caribbean island and forcing thousands of panicked locals to flee to safety.
The blast from La Soufriere, the highest peak in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, sent plumes of hot ash and smoke 6,000m into the air, the local emergency management agency said.
Video posted on the website news784.com showed a tower of ash being belched out and expanding into a ball shape as it rose upwards.
No deaths or injuries have been reported.
“Please leave the red zone immediately. La Soufriere has erupted. Ash fall recorded as far as Argyle International Airport,” the National Emergency Management Organisation said.
The airport and volcano are at opposite ends of the 29km long island.
The 1,200m-high La Soufriere – French for “sulphur mine” – had not erupted since 1979 and its largest blow-up happened over a century ago, killing more than 1,000 people in 1902.
It had been rumbling for months before it finally blew.
It is now likely to keep erupting for days or weeks, scientists at the University of the West Indies, in Trinidad and Tobago, tweeted.
“Once there is one explosive eruption it is likely others can occur,” the university’s seismological research centre said.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves started issuing evacuation orders late Thursday for residents in so-called red zones, home to some 16,000 people on the biggest island in the archipelago. The total population of the chain is about 100,000.
“Persons living in the ‘Red Zones’ are strongly advised to pack a quantity of personal items, secure your homes and animals; and be ready to be evacuated immediately,” police said in a statement after the eruption.
Zen Punnett, who lives on the island, said people panicked Thursday night as the evacuation orders came out but things were calmer Friday.
“I can feel and hear rumbling here in the green safe zone. We can see a huge ball of smoke. Keeping calm as much as possible and praying,” Punnett said on Friday.
Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises said in a press release they were sending two ships to assist the evacuation effort.
‘Scared out of their wits’
Gonsalves said two more ships from cruise liner company Carnival were also on their way.
Those evacuated would be taken to shelters elsewhere in the island chain or other Caribbean territories that have offered assistance, such as Barbados and Saint Lucia, according to local media.
Philmore Mullin, director of Antigua and Barbuda’s National Office of Disaster Services, told AFP the twin island nation was ready to receive evacuees from Saint Vincent.
He said between 12,000 and 15,000 people had already moved out of the red zones.
“I know for sure they will be scared out of their wits. The question is, what will happen after they move. Volcanoes don’t tell you what they are thinking,” said Mullin.
“If it continues to erupt for a long time it will be life-changing for them. And, depending on the type of eruption, they might not be able to get back home for years.”
The Royal Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force (RSVGPF) said in a statement quoted by local media that all officers had been told to report for duty immediately.
“All members of the (RSVGPF) and its auxiliary forces who are currently on vacation leave are hereby informed that all leave has been canceled with immediate effect,” the release said.
Sirens sounded out on one side of the island of as traffic became gridlocked on the other in the rush to escape, local news portal Searchlight reported.