São Vicente warns of volcanic eruption, orders evacuations

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Authorities on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent said on Thursday that they believe an active volcano is in danger of erupting and have ordered mandatory evacuations.

The island’s emergency management office has changed the alert level to red and said a Royal Caribbean cruise ship will arrive after dark to evacuate those living near the La Soufriere volcano. Others will be taken to shelters in other parts of São Vicente, outside the danger zone.

Approximately 16,000 people live in the red zone and will need to be evacuated, Erouscilla Joseph, director of the Seismic Research Center at the University of the West Indies, told the Associated Press.

Evacuation efforts can be hampered by the pandemic.

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said at a news conference that people need to be vaccinated if they are on board a cruise ship or are given temporary refuge on other nearby islands.

Gonsalves said he was talking to other Caribbean governments to accept people’s identity cards if they don’t have a passport.

“This is an emergency situation and everyone understands that,” he said.

Gonsalves added that he strongly recommends that those who choose to go to a shelter in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a chain of islands with more than 100,000 people, be vaccinated.

Joseph said that emergency management teams have been going to communities in the red zone and providing transportation to safer locations, including pre-arranged shelters.

“They know who doesn’t have transportation because all of this has been looked at before,” she said, adding that those who board the cruise ship would not be taken anywhere else, but would remain there for an unspecified period of time.

Government officials tweeted that the summit of the volcano located in the northern part of the island can be seen glowing at dusk. The alert issued on Wednesday night follows days of seismic activity around La Soufriere.

Scientists warned the government of a possible eruption after observing a specific type of seismic activity at 3 am on Thursday morning that indicated that “the magma was moving close to the surface,” said Joseph.

“Things are increasing very quickly,” she said of volcanic activity, adding that it was impossible to provide an accurate forecast of what could happen in the next few hours or days.

A team from the seismic center arrived in São Vicente in late December, after the volcano erupted. They have analyzed the formation of a new volcanic dome, changes in the crater lake, seismic activity and gas emissions, among other things.

The volcano last erupted in 1979, and an earlier eruption in 1902 killed about 1,600 people.