St Vincent braces for more eruptions

·2-min read

People who ignored an initial warning to leave the area closest to a volcano on the eastern Caribbean island of St Vincent have raced to get clear, a day after it erupted with an explosion that shook the ground, spewed ash skyward and blanketed the island in a layer of fine volcanic rock.

The eruption on Friday of La Soufriere transformed the island's lush towns and villages into gloomy, grey versions of themselves. A strong sulphur smell was unavoidable on Saturday and ash covered everything, creeping into homes, cars and noses, and obscuring the sun.

Scientists warn the explosions could continue for days or even weeks, and the worst could be yet to come.

"The first bang is not necessarily the biggest bang this volcano will give," Richard Robertson, a geologist with the University of the West Indies' Seismic Research Center, said during a news conference.

About 16,000 people have had to flee their ash-covered communities with as many belongings as they could carry. However, there are no reports of deaths or injuries.

Before it blew, the government ordered people to leave the most high-risk area around the 1220-metre volcano after scientists warned that magma was moving close to the surface.

Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of the 32 islands that make up St Vincent and the Grenadines, said on local radio that people should remain calm and keep trying to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

He said officials were trying to figure out the best way to collect and dispose of the ash, which covered an airport runway near the capital of Kingstown and fell as far away as Barbados, about 200km to the east.

People who did not heed the initial evacuation order hurried to do so Saturday. At least a few evacuees escaped in small boats and headed to other parts of the main island.

About 3200 people took refuge at 78 government-run shelters, and four empty cruise ships stood ready to take other evacuees to nearby islands, with a group of more than 130 already taken to St Lucia.

Those staying at the shelters were tested for COVID-19, with anyone testing positive being taken to an isolation centre.

La Soufriere last had a sizable eruption in 1979. An eruption in 1902 killed about 1600 people.

The volcano had a minor eruption in December.