Residents of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) have been asked by the Prime Minister to hope for the best, but plan for the worst in relation to the effusive eruptions taking place at La Soufriere.
Speaking on NBC Radio’s Morning Cup program yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves advised persons in the northern parts of St Vincent be on the alert.
“Well people are smelling the sulphur so they already on the alert, but I want to say to you as Prime Minister I haven’t made any order for evacuation,” Gonsalves said.
On Tuesday, the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) raised the La Soufriere Volcano Hazard Alert Level from yellow to orange because of effusive eruptions taking place in the crater of the 4,048 ft volcano.
“Persons living in areas close to the volcano which include all the communities from Fancy to Georgetown and from Belle Isle to Richmond are asked to remain alert and listen to all advisories,” NEMO said.
NEMO also reminded the public that the volcano is off limits and is closed to the general public due to the dangerous emissions and the serious threat that rapid change at the crater could pose.
Despite this, there is evidence that some persons have been visiting the volcano and filming videos for social media.
“Remember don’t go up Soufriere. The closer you get to it, the sulphur will make it difficult for you to breathe and the heat is coming from it,” Gonsalves said on Wednesday.
He said that the government is on the alert and the National Emergency Council has already met and everyone, including NEMO is being guided by the St Vincent and the Grenadines National Emergency Management Plan (Annex 4 SVG National Volcano Emergency Plan).
The National Emergency Council a grouping made up of among others, Cabinet members, permanent secretaries, heads of departments, the civil aviation authority, the port authority, CWSA, VINLEC, LIME, Digicel and the state information networks.
The Prime Minister said buildings in safe areas, suitable for use as volcanic emergency centres have already been identified and the authorities are making sure that the identified buildings are ready to receive people.
He noted that some of the older schools are problematic, but the new schools are suited for the task with water-tanks, bathrooms, toilets and showers on the top and bottom floors.
“A large number of persons will have to be evacuated [if the eruption moves to explosive],” Gonsalves said while also noting that there is also a list of hotels, guest houses and buildings that may be called upon to house persons.
He noted that in this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, care will also have to be taken in relation to how many persons are housed in one area.
The Prime Minister said that if the volcano becomes explosive, the scientists should be able to give emergency services at least 48 hours notice and they will try to keep families together.
“Nature is unpredictable so we all have to be on alert,” Gonsalves said while adding that the emergency organizations will try their best, if it comes to that, and move seamlessly and practicable while persons must be patient and calm and not panic.
“I know sometimes reason leaves us in times of emergency, but we must be calm.”
He said the police force today is larger than in 1979 when the volcano last erupted, and the government now has a lot more vehicles, and no one was killed back then.
“We have a history of dealing with natural disasters honestly,” Gonsalves said, while adding that the government is being open and on Tuesday held a Zoom meeting during which scientists spoke to the media and the public.
The volcano is being closely monitored by a team headed by volcanologist Professor Dr Richard Robertson of the Seismic Research Centre, University of the West Indies (UWI-SRC) St Augustine Campus.
Robertson noted that an effusive eruption means that magma (molten rock) is coming out of the volcano quietly. He also stated that this molten rock is forming a new dome in the crater of the volcano.
He said the mass growing in the crater is similar to the one that grew there during the 1971/1972 eruptions.
“I think you have to prepare for a little bit of a rocky road in the next couple months, unfortunately,” Robertson said via Zoom on Tuesday, during a press briefing at Cabinet room in the presence of the Prime Ministers and other officials.
There are two types of volcanic eruptions – effusive and explosive.
Explosive eruptions, such as what took place in 1979 are where gas and broken fragments are shot up into the atmosphere, creating explosions.
It cannot be predicted if and when a volcano’s eruptions will change from effusive to explosive.
“Prime Minister, I think St Vincent dodged COVID but I’m not sure you’re dodging the volcano, unfortunately,” Robertson said on Tuesday.
“What is happening now is a very serious thing. The volcano is erupting. That in itself is very serious,” Robertson added.
He said the volcano had been showing signs of activity since early November.
“Generally events were one or two per day, sometimes none at all, but it was certainly sufficient for us to be a bit concerned and we have been liaising with NEMO ever since, providing advisories as necessary,” Robertson told reporters.
The interest of the scientists however heightened on December 22, when the UWI-SRC was made aware by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of a hot spot on La Soufriere.
Vincentians have now been placed on high alert as the UWI-SRC says the activity which is now being detected is above average and is something to be concerned about.
Robertson said the NASA image of the hot spot was “basically smack in the crater of the volcano…it wasn’t clear what was happening.”
“So NEMO, the Soufriere monitoring unit, arranged to go up [on Tuesday] because there was a heat source at the summit that was not letting up for the last couple days,” the Vincentian volcanologist said.
He noted that when the NEMO team went up, they verified that there is an emission and reported that there is currently an effusive eruption where magma is coming slowly out of the earth and building a dome-shaped, black mass of rock.
“We are currently working with NEMO to augment the monitoring system because at present what would happen once you have an eruption onset, we want to have a team and more instruments in so we can give direct advice to NEMO as it goes along,” Robertson explained.
Travel out of Trinidad and Tobago is presently prohibited because of Covid-19 protocols, but the Government of Trinidad and Tobago gave permission for three staff members of the UWI-SRC, including Robertson, to travel to SVG, bringing with them additional instruments to enable them to more closely monitor the volcano.
The team should already be in the country, having been scheduled to arrive last evening.