KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – People who ignored an initial warning to evacuate area closest to a volcano on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent ran clear and clear on Saturday, the day after the eruption, with a ground-rocking blast spat ash skyward and covered the island with a layer of fine volcanic rock.
The Eruption Friday of La Soufriere – the first major since 1979 – turned the island’s lush towns and villages into gloomy, gray versions of themselves. A strong smell of sulfur was inevitable on Saturday and ashes covered everything, creeping into houses, cars and noses and hiding the sunshine that makes the island so popular with tourists.
Chellise Rogers, who lives in the village of Biabou, in an area of St. Vincent that is considered safe, said she could hear incessant rumblings.
“It’s exciting and scary at the same time,” she said. “(It’s) the first time I’ve witnessed a volcanic eruption.”
Scientists warn that the explosions could last days or even weeks, and that the worst may yet be ahead.
“The first bang is not necessarily the biggest bang this volcano will make,” said Richard Robertson, geologist at the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center, during a press conference.
About 16,000 people were forced to flee their ash-covered communities with as many items as they could stuff into suitcases and backpacks. However, there are no reports of anyone being killed or injured by the first explosion or subsequent ones. Before it exploded, the government ordered people to evacuate the highest risk area around the 4,003-foot volcano after scientists warned magma was moving close to the surface.
Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of the 32 islands that make up the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said on local NBC Radio that people should stay calm, be patient and keep trying to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
He said officials were trying to find the best way to collect and dispose of the ashes that covered an airport runway near the capital Kingstown, about 20 miles south, and falling as far as Barbados, about 120 miles east .
“It’s hard to breathe,” said the prime minister, adding that although the volcano vented less, a large cloud of ash remained. “What goes up has to come down again.”
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Although Gonsalves said it could take up to four months for life to return to normal, he is confident it will.
“Agriculture is going to be badly affected and we may have some animal loss and we have to make repairs to houses. But when we have life and strength we will rebuild it better and stronger together,” he said.
People who ignored the initial evacuation order rushed to do so on Saturday. At least some ash-covered evacuees fled in small boats to other parts of the main island, which makes up 90 percent of the entire country.
About 3,200 people sought refuge in 78 government-run shelters, and four empty cruise ships stood ready to take other evacuees to the nearby islands. A group of more than 130 people has already been brought to St. Lucia. Those who stayed in the shelters were tested for Covid-19, and anyone who tested positive was taken to an isolation center.
Nearby nations, including Antigua and Grenada, also offered to take in evacuees.
The ash has also forced the cancellation of several flights, and poor visibility has restricted evacuation in some areas. Officials warned that St. Lucia in the north and Grenada in the south could receive light ash fall, although most of it was expected to lead northeast into the Atlantic.