“The probability of it going explosive was already high,” Erouscilla Joseph, director of the Seismic Research Centre at the University of the West Indies, told The Washington Post. But with steaming, venting and light ash fall at the volcano, it became clear that “we’re moving into a hazardous phase.”
Residents near La Soufrière began evacuating the island’s “red zone” on Thursday by traveling to nearby islands, boarding cruise ships or moving into emergency shelters on other parts of St. Vincent. About 5,000 to 6,000 people live in the affected areas, Joseph said.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves pleaded with residents to remain calm at a news conference on Thursday, noting that the coronavirus pandemic made the emergency situation doubly difficult to coordinate. Any evacuees boarding the cruise ships or seeking refuge abroad would be required to get vaccinated, he added.
“I don’t want you to panic. That is the worst thing to do,” he said. “Not everything is going to go perfect, but if we all cooperate with one another, we do everything with a good spirit and a good heart and good neighborly love, we will come through this stronger than ever.”
Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruises are providing liners to evacuate Vincentians off the island, including four vessels scheduled to arrive by Friday. Gonsalves said that several neighboring island nations, including Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, and St. Lucia, have offered to welcome evacuees.
In addition to mandating vaccinations for cruise ship evacuees, Gonsalves was also “strongly recommending” that anyone entering emergency facilities on St. Vincent be immunized.
Only a small fraction of people in St. Vincent and the Grenadines appear to have been vaccinated. As of early on Friday, just over 10,000 doses had been administered so far to the island nation’s approximately 110,000 residents, according to the Our World in Data project at Oxford University.
In February, St. Vincent and the Grenadines received 40,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Indian officials. And earlier this week, the country received an additional shipment of vaccine through Covax, an initiative backed by the World Health Organization to distribute doses equitably across the globe.
Video taken by local media outlets showed dozens of evacuees from the danger zone arriving on the southern portion of the island to stay in the emergency shelters, seek refuge with family members or head elsewhere.
Gonsalves said that authorities in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago are also prepared to assist if the La Soufrière volcano erupts. He has requested that Trinidad and Tobago accept any Vincentians even if they don’t have necessary travel documents to the islands, which are about 175 miles south of St. Vincent.
A team of geologists from UWI’s Seismic Research Centre in Trinidad and Tobago has been deployed to St. Vincent to continue monitoring the volcano. By early on Friday, a glowing, fiery dome of lava could be seen in the dark from one side of the island as the wind pushed off a light ash fall.
“All of these indicators show that the possibility of an explosive eruption has significantly increased,” Joseph said, though she noted that magma could continue building a dome of lava rather than immediately erupting if conditions change.
Four other eruptions have been recorded in recent history, in 1718, 1812, and 1902, when about 1,600 people were killed.