Feature and photos by Robertson S Henry
Tons of volcanic debris washed down the slopes of the mountains along the Wallilabou River onto the Richmond Beach during the 32 volcanic eruptions of La Soufriere volcano April 9 – 22 last year. The scenic beach and its surroundings were buried under feet of ash and debris.
In some spots, the drop of land to the sea was almost 30 feet, with a narrow passageway left for the flow of water from the river. Volcanic rock, charcoal from burnt trees on the mountain slopes, ash, and other debris littered the huge expanse of space from the water’s edge all the way inland to the gorge from which the river enters the coast.
And while the features of the Richmond beach continue to undergo changes, people have begun to return there, apparently for social activities and are also venturing up the slopes of the Soufriere Mountain.
Director of Forestry, Fitzgerald Providence on Tuesday told SEARCHLIGHT that the lahars are responsible for the debris which is littering the area and people need to be very careful venturing there as it can be quite unstable.
“It is not stable material and breaks off at any time and in places least expected. It is something in a volcanic island which continuously changes,” Providence said.
He further said that, “the natural actions of the rain and runoff water would be eroding the soil. There is plenty of loose material on the slopes which can come down at any time; the dynamics of a volcanic island.”
The features of the Wallilabou River mouth have changed and Providence said “it is something that we must keep observing, the changes. It is also something that the schools can also observe…but under supervision.”
The forestry official said there may still be gaps under the surface adding to the instability.
He is equally concerned about people climbing back up the mountain slopes before clearance is given in light of the huge amount of materials still lying around.
“It is something that we should not take for granted. We should be cautious with it. It is loose material now.The rains may be coming in the hills and the loose material could cause dams,” which can burst, sending torrents of water downslope.
The authorities have continually warned against people getting caught in the flow of lahars as they flow out to sea.
Providence recounted a situation some years ago when a portion in the upper region of the Trinity Falls broke away creating a dam which then burst unleashing a veritable flood. Thankfully, no one was in the river, hence tragedy was averted.
According to Providence, there is still a huge amount of ash and volcanic debris on the slopes of the volcano which can be washed down by the rains and have the potential for tragedy.
During the eruptions, one of the scientists engaged in monitoring La Soufriere said there could be up to an estimated 80 million tons of volcanic debris on the slopes of the volcano.
Providence said much of that “is still sitting there on the soil. It is not consolidated, and is still very loose.”
He recognised therefore that danger still exists, hence the reason why residents are warned not to venture up the slopes of the volcano which will become more stable when the vegetation fully returns.
“ It would take some time for the vegetation to grow back, and while the ash is very fertile it would take some time for the roots to grow. Vegetation is important because the roots hold that loose material. The more greenery you will get, the more stable the slopes become.”
A period of six to 12 months is still needed to allow the volcanic debris to harden and stabilise, and the social media evidence of persons climbing the slopes of the mountains is troubling to the Director of Forestry.
The Forestry Division has worked alongside the National Parks Rivers and Beaches Authority (NPRBA), to stabilise a pathway to allow the scientists access to carry out their duties such as the placement of monitoring equipment and to conduct observations.
Providence pointed out that this access is not for the public.
“It is dangerous especially on wet and rainy days because the material is very loose and can move with water and become very hazardous to them,” he explained.
Director of the National Parks Rivers and Beaches Authority, Andrew Wilson pointed out that changes along the Richmond Beach and Wallilabou River will continue over time.
He too expressed concern that people are venturing up the slopes to visit the volcano.
“That is a no-no. Persons should not be going up the volcano. The trail is not open. We have signs posted that this site is closed on our Facebook page and website,” Wilson pointed out.
He stressed that,“the trail is not safe and NEMO (National Emergency Management Organisation), has not declared the site safe to use.”
There also is the issue of gassing along the crater and, “when you are up in the crater you are directly in the pathway of the gases. So there are two issues of safety,” Wilson added.
“There is another level of work that would need to be done to render it safe for recreational use and we are hoping to begin doing that soon.”
The staff of the NPRBA has been concentrating over the past months on the Windward side of the volcano and were able to reach the crater from that side. The trail is about 2.5 kilometres long, and it is the final third of the trail “that we have the greatest issue with, which would be closest to the summit,” Wilson said.
“ It is steeper and does not have any vegetation and has plenty of loose material. That is the part that tends to be a lot more challenging. There are some clear pathways, and there are areas which have had some slippage where one can slip and fall into a real dangerous area like a deep gully.”
He said that the gas in the crater must be at a certain level before it could be considered safe for persons to visit. This was echoed by Director of NEMO Michelle Forbes, who told SEARCHLIGHT that Professor Richard Robertson is expected to be in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the coming days, and will proceed to take gas samples at the crater among other tasks.
She said they have been taking samples from sea level, making use of a coast guard vessel but those levels have reduced, so the next step is to find out what the levels are in the crater.
With respect to the Richmond Beach, Forbes said that people should expect more changes to the beach as the high seas and wave action will cause even more erosion, and cautioned persons against venturing onto the beach especially in the area where changes to the landscape are taking place.
She also made it plain that NEMO has continued to inform the public that the volcano is off limits, and anyone who goes up there is doing so at their own risk.
She noted that once the gas levels at the crater are safe enough, “we will hand it over to Parks and Beaches who will determine the safety of the trail before a decision is taken to allow visits up the volcano”.