SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Authorities around the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent said Thursday they believe an active volcano is in danger of erupting and have ordered mandatory evacuations.
The island’s emergency management office switched on the alert level to red as officials started to evacuate individuals who live near La Soufriere volcano to shortly place them aboard cruise ships, send them into nearby islands or take them into shelters elsewhere in St. Vincent which are away from the danger zone.
Roughly 16,000 people live in the red zone and will need to be evacuated, Erouscilla Joseph, manager of the University of the West Indies’ Seismic Research Center, told The Associated Press.
The pandemic could hamper evacuation efforts.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said in a press conference that people have to be vaccinated if they go aboard a cruise ship or are granted temporary refuge in another island. He said two Royal Caribbean cruise ships are expected to arrive by Friday and a third one in the coming days, as well as two Carnival cruise ships by Friday. Islands that have said they would accept evacuees include St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados and Antigua.
“Not everything is going to go perfect, however when all of us cooperate… we will come through this stronger than ever,” Gonsalves said.
He noted that he was talking to Caribbean governments to accept people’s ID cards if they don’t have a passport.
“This is a crisis situation, and everyone knows that,” he said.
Gonsalves added that he highly recommends those who opt to go to a shelter in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, an island chain of more than 100,000 people, be vaccinated.
“They know who doesn’t have transportation because all of this was canvassed before,” she said, adding that those who board the cruise ship would not be taken elsewhere but would remain there for an unspecified period of time.
By late Thursday evening, shelters were filling up as a string of car lights making their way to safer ground twinkled through the darkened mountains.
John Renton, a school principal who was in charge of one shelter, said in a phone interview that they had plenty of masks and other personal protective equipment but needed more cots. While talking, he was interrupted by a phone call from a government official asking about the state of things. “We’re over ability,” he responded, noting that the shelter could hold 75 people and was already filled up.
Government officials tweeted that the dome of the volcano located on the island’s northern region could be seen glowing by nightfall. The alert issued Wednesday follows days of seismic activity around La Soufriere.
Gonsalves urged people to remain calm and orderly.
“I don’t want you panicked,” he said. “That is the worst thing to do.”
Scientists alerted the government about a possible eruption after noting a type of seismic activity at 3 a.m. on Thursday that indicated”magma was about the move near the surface,” Joseph said.
“Things are escalating pretty fast,” she explained of this volcanic action, adding that it had been not possible to deliver an exact forecast of what could happen in the upcoming hours or days.
A group from the seismic center arrived from St. Vincent in late December after the volcano had an effusive eruption. They’ve been analyzing the creation of a new volcanic dome, changes to the crater lake, seismic activity and gasoline emissions, among other items.
The volcano last erupted in 1979, and also a former eruption at 1902 killed some 1,600 people.
The eastern Caribbean is home to other active volcanoes. Seventeen of the region’s 19 reside volcanoes are situated around 11 islands, together with the remaining two underwater close to the island of Grenada, including a called Kick’Em Jenny which has been active in the past several years.
The region’s most active volcano recently has been Soufriere Hills in Montserrat, which has erupted continuously since 1995, ruining the capital of Plymouth and murdering at least 19 individuals in 1997.