A large eruption at the La Soufrière volcano in the eastern Caribbean early Monday is sending a rapidly moving avalanche of hot rocks and volcanic ash down the mountain, raising fears that some communities could be destroyed.
Satellite imagery shows the 4:15 a.m. eruption produced dangerous pyroclastic flows traveling faster than a river down the mountain in St. Vincent and the Grenadines as ash filled the air.
“I suspect quite a bit of the mountain now, and the communities, the buildings and the structures that are on the mountain, are destroyed and damaged,” said Richard Robertson, the lead geologist with the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center, which has been closely monitoring the volcano. “Everything that was there — man, animal, anything in the path of those — they are gone.”
Scientists do not know yet how far down the mountain the hot rocks and gas may have traveled. Researchers and emergency workers were heading out on a Coast Guard boat to get a closer view of the volcano, which is situated on the northern end of the island of St. Vincent. Early satellite imagery showed an old dome, or mound of lava, from the last eruption, in 1979, as well as a recently formed one, have been destroyed.
“We have a huge hole in the mountain,” Robertson said.
In a report on the situation following an emergency meeting with the country’s prime minister, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, OECS, reported that there had been no reported loss of life or injuries from the eruptions. The OECS is a regional block of eastern Caribbean nations, most of which share the same official currency.
Now that we have observed pyroclastic density currents (flows) at La Soufrière, take a look at this VolFilm episode to...
Late Monday, emergency officials warned that anyone caught in the red zone without permission will be “immediately arrested and prosecuted” whether they live in the area or not. They also asked residents to stop gathering at the Rabacca Bridge or anywhere else in the high-risk zones to view the rapidly moving avalanche of rocks, dust and gas coming from the La Soufrière volcano.
“This is considered to be EXTREMELY DANGEROUS,” the National Emergency Management Organization wrote on its Facebook page.
La Soufrière erupted Friday for the first time in over four decades, forcing 20,000 to flee for safety. Officials on the main island said Monday that critical supplies collected for those in shelters before the explosion were starting to dwindle. Power and running water were also cut off over the weekend, and clean water was running low in some communities.
Also of concern was the destruction of vegetation and crops.
“The farms are basically gone. The tree crops have been denuded. There is only, in some cases, the stems that are standing,” Deputy Prime Minister Montgomery Daniel said.
Daniel, who is from Sandy Bay in the north, toured communities in the northeastern part of the country on Sunday. He told Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves that the forest areas closest to the volcano were all gone.
“What I saw, it was indeed terrible,” he said. He said crops such as coconut, breadfruit and mangoes, sour sops, plantain and bananas “are basically gone.” Other root crops like yam were buried underneath ash.
“The ashfall in some areas would have been so deep that all of the vegetation would have been covered,” he said, referring to yams and other root crops. “There is not going to be very much food in that area for some time.”
Authorities are also trying to mitigate COVID-19 spread in the island chain of about 100,0000 people while getting those in the danger zone to safety. The country registered 14 new cases on Monday but so far none were from the government-run shelters, where authorities are conducting rapid testing and continue to urge a skeptical population to get vaccinated. Though St. Vincent and the Grenadines had low virus infection numbers last year, regional health authorities have warned of an increase in recent months.
Officials were only allowing those who had been vaccinated aboard cruise ships, but other than 200 people who were transported to St. Lucia over the weekend, there didn’t appear to be a rush to leave the island, Gonsalves said.
“Regrettably, either today or tomorrow, we have to tell the cruise ships that there’s not a sufficient take up of persons who want to leave St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he said.
On Monday, both the airports in St. Vincent and in Bridgetown, Barbados, remained closed due to the low visibility produced by the plumes of volcanic ash in the atmosphere.
Scientists don’t know enough to predict when the eruptions will end or if bigger ones could come, but recent activity patterns seemed to indicate that there wouldn’t be as much ash falling as there was on Friday, Robertson said. Because of mountains between the north and south of the island, the hot rocks, gas and debris would likely go out to sea.
“The mountains are stopping it,” Robertson said. “We have a barrier between Soufrière and the rest of the country, but we don’t have a barrier between Soufrière and the sea.”
But potential for destruction from the hot gas and rock flows in any mountain communities, where some 20,000 reside, however, remains high. There were ongoing concerns Monday that some people may not have evacuated and were present on the mountain when the pyroclastic flows started.
An eruption in 1902 killed over 1,600 people, while another in 1979 gave residents a scare but resulted in no deaths. Robertson said the destructive flows like those seen Monday were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Vincentians in an eruption over a century ago.
“There are very few structures in the world that can stand up to the forces of that material going down the mountainside,” he said. “It just destroys everything. Trees get mashed up, buildings get mashed up; things get bulldozed out of the way.”
The World Bank announced Monday that it had disbursed $20 million to support the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ response to the crisis posed by the volcano eruption. The United Kingdom also announced a donation of $145,545 to support the regional response to the disaster through the Caribbean Development Emergency Agency.
The United Nations said that the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines has officially asked for its assistance and, over the weekend, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres spoke to Gonsalves. U.N. assistance so far includes relief items, food, cash distribution and technical advice.
Gonsalves said several vessels from Venezuela, Guyana, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago were en route to bring humanitarian supplies. While at least one was expected to bring in drinking water, officials were evaluating how to ensure a steady water supply through wells and a treatment plant operating in the foothills of Mount St. Andrew, which is away from the danger zone.
Gonsalves estimated it will not be cheap to recover from the eruption.
“You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars really, what you’re going to need to rehabilitate,” he said.