The eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which saw the eruption of its La Soufriere volcano for the first time in 42 years, woke up Sunday to heavy ash fall everywhere, more explosive eruptions, minor earthquakes overnight and a new worry: the possible destruction of communities from heavy flows of lava droplets and hot gas.
Lead geologist Richard Robertson said while white-colored volcanic ash covered everything from rooftops and roads to the island’s vegetation, scientists with the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center were becoming increasingly concerned about the destruction of communities near the volcano. A video obtained by the team, he said, showed evidence of pyroclastic flows, the fast-moving volcanic ash, lava droplets and hot gas that can incinerate everything in its path, instantly.
“They will tend to boil the sea and they will shoot across the sea as a foam of rapidly moving hot air,” Robertson said. “We don’t have lava flows, the nice flow, running things, that’s red…What we have is fragments of rocks, and boulders and other things that shoot down the mountainside very fast and destroy everything.”
Robertson said mountainside communities near La Soufriere not only have to ”survive the heavy ash, but now they have the potential of being destroyed by these flows that go down the mountainside.”
“These flows are really moving masses of destruction,” he said during an appearance on a local news program along with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves. “If you have the strongest house in the world, they will just bulldoze it off the ground.”
Emergency officials described the country as looking like “a battle-zone.”
In addition to blanketing the island of St. Vincent, the plumes of volcanic ash and smoke moving through the atmosphere had also forced the closure of the island’s airspace and was also affecting the nearby islands of St. Lucia and Barbados, and possibly Grenada. Residents in Barbados were urged to stay indoors, while St. Lucia told residents to also be wary of the declined in the air quality.
Robertson said scientists had started to collect samples of the ash in order to examine it and see what the potential health effects were. One impact was already visible.
“The environment has been really damaged badly by the heavy ash fall, and people’s property and structure would probably become damaged because of the ash,” he said.
Regional governments, meanwhile, continued to come to St. Vincent’s aide with the Barbados Defense Force deploying a contingent as part of the Regional Security System’s humanitarian assistance and disaster response mission in the aftermath of the volcano eruption.
On Thursday, officials in the island-nation ordered the evacuation of thousands of residents living in the red zone, warning that an explosion of the 4,049-foot foot volcano in the north of the island of St. Vincent could be imminent.
After the first explosion occurred at 8:41 a.m. Friday, authorities again warned people to leave. During the evacuation, emergency management personnel reported that low visibility, created by heavy plumes of ash and smoke, was getting in the way of the evacuation efforts. The blast from the volcano, sent plumes of ash 29,000 feet into the air, Robertson said.
A video shared on social media by Rochelle Baptiste Sunday showed the destruction of Arrowroot Factory in Owia, one of several communities in the volcano’s red zone that had been ordered to evacuate.
In the video, the ground is covered in black ash and the rooftop has totally collapsed, demolishing the factory. Other images showed a country covered in ashes as far south as the capital, Kingstown.
The country’s emergency management agency reported that in addition to a series of explosions overnight, there was also lightning, thunder and rumblings. The majority of St. Vincent was out of power and covered in ash, the National Emergency Management Office said.
“Day No. 3 and everything looks like a battle zone,” NEMO tweeted Sunday. “Dreary morning with the ash beginning to harden on the ground due to overnight showers. Many homes are still without water and electricity.”
Robertson said the explosions and rumblings showed no indication that the event was waning, even with breaks in between. The volcano’s activity, he said, appeared to be following the pattern of the 1902 eruption that killed over 1,600 people and not 1979, which gave residents a scare but resulted in no deaths.
“That means that probably, unfortunately, it’s going to cause more damage and disruption to St. Vincent but it also means that there will always be that safe place in the southern parts of the country, which might have a lot of ash every now and again but you can still sustain life and limb,” Robertson said.
If there is a silver lining then it is that at least for now, it did not seem like the whole country was going to be destroyed even if the amount of devastation in the northern part of the island appeared that it was going to be significant.
On Sunday, rain started to fall. Even with the potential risk clogging the rivers and creating flooding, Robertson said the best thing that could happen to St. Vincent was “plenty of rainfall.”
“We want to get rid of it, get into the sea, in the river and go away so that it doesn’t affect us,” Robertson said. “The slightly bad part is we have so much of it that if and when it gets into the rivers…. it could cause flooding of areas so therefore it might produce some negative impact.”