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.
The volcano, known as La Soufrière, on the northern tip of the main island of St. Vincent, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, had started showing signs of renewed activity in late December. It moved into an “explosive state” on Friday morning, the National Emergency Management Organization said in a Twitter posting.
“It was a very, very loud bang,” said Shaquille Hadaway Williams, 22, a St. Vincent resident, describing the moment the volcano erupted. Soon the smell of sulfur permeated the air, he said, followed by clouds of ash, with stones falling on roofs and flashes of volcanic lightning in the sky. “You never see something like this,” he said.
The country’s emergency management agency said that the ash fall had been registered as far as the country’s international airport on the southern part of the island — more than 12 miles away — and an ash plume had billowed 20,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean.
The morning eruption was followed about six hours later by a “second explosive eruption” that was not as extensive, the agency said.
Video clips shot in Chateaubelair, a town on the foothills of the volcano, showed the sky darkened by ash as evacuees wearing face masks trudged through the streets lugging their belongings. Other clips posted on social media showed homes and streets blanketed in grayish white ash.
“The sky, right now it’s very, very dark because of the ash plummeting into the air,” said Hadaway, who had evacuated from his village on the western part of the island Thursday afternoon as the government warned of possibly imminent eruptions.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the eruptions, and the extent of any damage in the surrounding area was unclear.
The eruptions came a day after officials had raised the alert level following several small tremors detected at the volcano, with clouds of steam seen erupting from its peak. The country’s prime minister, Ralph Gonsalves, ordered a full evacuation of the area.
“I want to urge all our people to be calm — do not panic,” Gonsalves said at a news conference Thursday. “We will come through this stronger than ever.”
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,” Joseph said in a phone interview. “This is a huge cost in terms of a humanitarian effort.”
Gonsalves said on Thursday that in order to board the cruise ships sent to evacuate people from the island, evacuees must be vaccinated, and the nearby island nations that are planning to accept refugees will require vaccinations. He also recommended that those who arrive in shelters on St. Vincent be vaccinated.
Islands that have said they would accept evacuees include Antigua, St. Lucia, Grenada and Barbados.
“Amazing on this dangerous road to Jericho we have the good Samaritans,” Gonsalves said at a news conference Friday. “It brings home that we are one Caribbean family.”
Scientists warned that eruptions could continue over days and even weeks.
“Once it has started, it’s possible you could have more explosions,” Richard Robertson, a professor of geology at the University of the West Indies, said during Friday’s news conference. “The first bang is not necessarily the biggest bang this volcano will give.”
Some of the most destructive volcanic eruptions on record are part of the history of the Caribbean’s mountainous islands. In 1995, the Soufrière Hills volcano on Montserrat, a British territory, roared back to life after more than three centuries of dormancy. Over the next two years, it would bury half the 39-square-mile island in ash and rock, including the capital, Plymouth, and render much of Montserrat uninhabitable.
Grenville Draper, a geologist at Florida International University, called it “the last really long-lived eruption” in the region.
Draper said the greatest peril from the St. Vincent eruption was not from lava, which is generally slow-moving in Caribbean volcanoes, but from pyroclastic flows — fast-moving avalanches of searing hot gas and volcanic debris.
“If it starts producing pyroclastic flows, then it’s very, very dangerous anywhere on the flanks of the volcano,” he said.
The 95,000 people on St. Vincent had been on edge for months in fear of an eruption of their volcano.
Some still vividly recalled La Soufrière’s last eruption, in 1979, which hurled debris thousands of feet but caused no fatalities thanks to a hastily arranged evacuation of residents to local beaches. Its ash reached as far as Barbados, 100 miles east. An earlier eruption, in 1902, killed nearly 1,700 people.
Cecilia Jewett, 72, a roads supervisor with the government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said she suffered through the 1979 eruption and recalled the scenes of panic and the desperate scramble for water, the sky darkened by ash and the overpowering stench of sulfur. Her father, she said, survived the deadly 1902 event, and told stories of victims buried in ash, and corpses lying in the streets.
“Those stories come back to my mind on hearing that the La Soufrière was acting up,” she recalled when interviewed last December. “It’s just too much. These young people would not understand. They think it’s just an explosion.”
“The sulfur, what it does to your eyes, your breathing, your very existence,” she continued. “It was a time I would not want to relive.”