Evacuations Ongoing After ‘Explosive Eruption’ on Caribbean Island

Seismic activity on the island of St. Vincent prompted mandatory evacuations hours before the eruption started

A photograph shows La Soufrière volcano surrounded by ash in the distance
La Soufrière volcano erupted less than 24 hours after evacuation orders were given on Saint Vincent Island. AP Photo/Orvil Samuel

At about 9 a.m. local time on April 9, the La Soufrière volcano erupted on Saint Vincent Island in the southern Caribbean.

The eruption followed days of earthquakes and tremors around the volcano, which is on the northern end of the island, and about a day of increased smoke and steam coming from the top of the volcano. The prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, gave an evacuation order at 5 p.m. on Thursday, when it was clear that an eruption was imminent. Overnight, the top of the volcano visibly glowed.

Ships, including cruise ships from Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises, began evacuating people from the affected regions, Vanessa Romo and Scott Neuman report for NPR. By Friday morning, almost 20,000 people had been evacuated, Ernesto Cooke and Oscar Lopez reports for the New York Times.

“All arrangements have now kick-started and the process begins,” said prime minister Gonsalves at a news conference on Thursday, per the Times. “I want to urge all our people to be calm — do not panic. With God’s grace we will get through this very well.”

The island nation’s National Emergency Management Organization, NEMO SVG, shared on Twitter that the ash plumes from the eruption now reach up to 20,000 feet and are headed east.

“The ash column is starting fall back down around the volcano,” says Erouscilla Joseph, director of the Seismic Research Centre at the University of the West Indies, to the Washington Post’s Teo Armus and Anthony Faiola. “It is possible that there will be some property damage. This could go on for days, weeks, or even months.”

Joseph tells Dánica Coto at the Associated Press, there could be additional explosions, but they will not be able to predict whether they will be larger than the first.

La Soufrière is the youngest volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and it is the northernmost volcano on the country’s main island. It is a stratovolcano with a crater lake at its peak. Because the lava in the volcano is thick and slow-moving, gases can become trapped and eventually burst out in an explosive eruption as happened this morning.

When the volcano erupted in 1902, it killed almost 1,700 people. The volcano didn’t erupt again until 1979, when a successful evacuation prevented fatalities. But residents who lived through the 1979 remember the darkness of the ash-filled sky and the stench of sulfur.

Cecilia Jewett, a 72-year-old St. Vincent resident, told the New York Times last December she recalls not only the 1979 eruption, but also stories of the 1902 eruption she heard from her father. He saw victims of the eruption buried in ash and dead people in the streets.

“It’s just too much. These young people would not understand. They think it’s just an explosion,” said Jewett to the Times. “The sulfur, what it does to your eyes, your breathing, your very existence. It was a time I would not want to relive.”

Nearby islands, including Trinidad, Tobago, Barbados and Antigua, have offered to welcome evacuees from Saint Vincent island, per the Washington Post. The prime minister has said evacuees who travel on cruise ships to other locations will be required to receive a Covid-19 vaccination shortly, and those using emergency facilities on the island are also strongly recommended to get immunized.

“Not everything is going to go perfect, but if we all cooperate ... we will come through this stronger than ever,” said prime minister Gonsalves during a news conference, per the AP. For example, evacuees going to other island nations will be allowed to enter with just a national ID if they do not have passport. “This is an emergency situation, and everybody understands that,” he concludes.