San Juan, Puerto Rico — An explosive eruption shook Las Friere volcano on St. Vincent in the eastern Caribbean Sea on Friday following a forced evacuation order from the local government.
Emergency management officials said the ash pillars had risen to a height of about 20,000 feet and the ash headed east toward the Atlantic Ocean.
However, large-scale ash fall was also reported in the community around the volcano, said Erouscilla Joseph, director of the University of the West Indies Earthquake Center.
“Further explosions can occur,” she said in a telephone interview, adding that it is impossible to predict whether they will be larger or smaller than the first.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
In the coastal town of Barwaiy, about nine miles from the volcano, after the explosion, evacuees roamed to shelters carrying backpacks, duffel bags, and shopping bags full of personal belongings. Some were preparing to stay there, while others were expected to board a cruise ship or go to a nearby island that provided help.
The volcano last erupted in 1979, killing about 1,600 people in the last eruption in 1902.
The new eruption followed a forced evacuation order issued Thursday to about 16,000 people living in the Red Zone near the volcano in the northern part of the island.
Authorities were worried that the pandemic could hinder evacuation efforts as dozens of people flowed towards safer places.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said at a news conference that he would need to be vaccinated if he wanted to board a cruise ship or temporarily evacuate to another island. He said two Royal Caribbean cruise ships would arrive on Friday, a third expected to arrive within a few days, and two carnival cruise ships. The islands that claim to accept evacuees include Saint Lucia, Grenada, Barbados and Antigua.
“Not everything will be perfect, but if we all work together … it will be stronger than ever,” said Gonzalves.
He said he was talking to the Caribbean government to accept ID cards for those who do not have a passport.
“This is an emergency and everyone understands it,” he said.
Gonzalves added that vaccination is highly recommended for those who choose to go to shelters in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (a chain of more than 100,000 islands).
According to Joseph, the emergency management team has traveled to the Red Zone community to provide transportation to safer locations, including pre-prepared shelters.
“They know who doesn’t have transportation because all of this was previously investigated,” she said, and people on board the cruise ship weren’t taken anywhere else. He added that he would stay there for an unspecified period of time.
By late Thursday night, the shelter was filled with a series of car lights heading to the sparkling safe ground in the dark mountains.
In a telephone interview, the principal of a shelter, John Lenton, said he had a lot of masks and other personal protective equipment, but needed more cribs. While talking, he was interrupted by a phone call from a high-ranking government official asking about the state of things. “We are over capacity,” he replied, saying the shelter could accommodate 75 people and was already full.
Government officials tweeted that the volcanic dome in the northern part of the island could be seen shining by Thursday nightfall. The alert issued on Wednesday follows the days of seismic activity around Las Friere.
Gonzalves urged people to stay calm and orderly.
“I don’t want you to panic,” he said. “That’s the worst thing.”
Scientists warned the government about the possibility of an eruption at 3 am Thursday after noticing a form of seismic activity indicating that “magma is moving closer to the surface,” Joseph said.
After the volcano erupted, a team at the Earthquake Center arrived in St. Vincent in late December. They have analyzed, among other things, the formation of new volcanic domes, changes in their crater lakes, seismic activity, and outgassing.
Of the 19 active volcanoes in the eastern Caribbean, 17 are on 11 islands and the other two are underwater near Grenada, including one called Kick’Em Jenny, which has been active in recent years.
The most active volcano in the region in recent years is the Soufriere Hills in Montserrat, which has continued to erupt since 1995, destroying the capital of Plymouth and killing at least 19 people in 1997.