Kingstown on edge after volcano explodes again on Tuesday night

Vincentians in the red zone in Owia are evacuated by the Coast Guard on Tuesday. Photo courtesy SVG Coast Guard
Vincentians in the red zone in Owia are evacuated by the Coast Guard on Tuesday. Photo courtesy SVG Coast Guard

KINGSTOWN, ST VINCENT: Nerves remain on edge throughout St Vincent after La Soufriere erupted twice on Tuesday, with pyroclastic flow threatening villages in the northeast.

The La Soufriere volcano exploded in the morning, 42 years to the day it erupted in 1979, when its dome collapsed.

Then, around 11pm on Tuesday, there was another explosion, with pyroclastic flow heading along the eastern side of the volcano, threatening villages in the red zone. A pyroclastic flow is a fast-moving current of hot gas and volcanic matter. It destroys anything in its path and can move faster than a man can run or a car can drive.

East of the volcano lies Owia – where 12 people, a dog and a goat were evacuated earlier in the day – Sandy Bay, Georgetown, Langley Park, Orange Hill, Magum and Overland.

Less than six hours earlier, St Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves praised God that no life was lost, nor injuries incurred. There were no reports of injuries up to 7am local time.

On Wednesday morning Kingstown, the capital, looked dreary after the night's volcanic activity, with clouds and ash suffocating the sunshine as locals began getting ready for work.

A dreary Kingstown on Wednesday after two eruptions of La Soufriere on Tuesday. Photo by Stephon Nicholas

On Tuesday afternoon, the capital showed little sign of the danger lying less than 20 kilometres north, as the Galleons Passage slowly entered the bay around 5pm local time (6pm TT time). Sunny skies greeted the TT contingent, contrasting with the eerie images from as far away as Barbados, where heavy ash fall made day look like night.

A nervous calm blanketed the town as the boatload of humanitarian aid arrived from Trinidad and Tobago.

The harbour seemed too small to accommodate the 74-metre-long vessel, but it eventually docked after almost an hour, taking the journey from TT to well over eight hours.

The MV Galleons Passage docked in Kingstown, St Vincent on Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Stephon Nicholas

Less than 50 metres from the port a dreadlocked Vincentian was washing his hair and bathing in the sea, indifferent to the commotion nearby, where his prime minister was waxing biblical to welcome the TT contingent.

Gonsalves praised the big heart of his Caribbean neighbour for its benevolence – food, water, hygienic kits, shelter kits, medical supplies, medical personnel and 50 soldiers. But the big donation seemed to create some logistical problems. There appeared to be a communication gap, as Newsday was told the offloading of the supplies might have to be done at another port.

There was also some aggressive negotiating between the Vincy and TT contingent about when offloading would begin. The Vincentians were keen to begin the massive task on Wednesday morning while a TT National Infrastructure Development Company (Nidco) representative insisted it must begin immediately.

Eventually, TT was told immigration had to clear the items aboard before any offloading began, and they would do that in the morning. It had taken over 12 hours to load the supplies in Trinidad.

The TT Spirit had encountered mechanical problems earlier that day, hastening the need for the Galleons Passage to get back to TT.

While touring the vessel, Gonsalves told the media although arrangements had been made with Grenada, Dominica, Antigua and St Kitts to accommodate evacuated Vincentians, most people did not want to leave.

In fact, he repeated the reports some in the red zone refused to evacuate, despite the imminent danger of volcanic ash and pyroclastic flow.

Gonsalves said he took a personal interest when he learned a man who was not in full possession of all his faculties was still in the red zone. He said the Coast Guard was dispatched to find him on Monday – but didn't. Instead, they found and evacuated 12 "stragglers." Gonsalves insisted the Coast Guard return to find him.

He said rescuing this man was a priority and "symbol of our humanity."

There are over 3,000 people in shelters around the island. Rhea Pierre, disaster preparedness co-ordinator of the International Federation of Red Cross Port of Spain, said the organisation is on the ground in St Vincent to assist in maintaining the dignity and safety of those being put up in shelters.

A pilot boat in Kingstown, St Vincent assists as the MV Galleons Passage arrives on Tuesday with humanitarian aid. Photo by Stephon Nicholas

Gonsalves said Tuesday morning's eruption did not have the power to spew ash high enough to bathe St Vincent. Fortunately, he said St Vincent itself was spared most of the ash fall.

"There is an abundance of ash that came out. Fortuitously (sic) for us, most of the ash did not fall on us, although you see the place so desolate, particularly the northern part. Most of the ash went to sea. Barbados got ash, Grenada got ash, St Lucia got ash.

"But what has come down on us has caused damage. In that part, the farms are desolate, (it) affected animal husbandry, housing has (been) affected adversely – particularly the houses of the poor, which are not so well constructed, roads. What happened when the rain came on the northeastern side, you had mudslides with ash and caused a lot of damage."

But an optimistic Gonsalves said St Vincent will rebound "in a short period of time once lady La Soufriere gives us a little respite."

He said Vincentians "want to stay, endure this, and help rebuild their country."

The MV Galleons Passage docked in Kingstown, St Vincent on Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Stephon Nicholas

But, chatting on Tuesday evening with the three TT reporters who travelled on the Galleons Passage, some Vincentians asked, half kidding, why we were on the island when they wanted to leave.

"Y'all don't know danger? Yuh want to see the volcano erupt?" they asked.

Although not in the red danger zone or orange zone, Kingstown was still carpeted with a thick layer of ash. Most Vincentians were observed wearing masks, to protect against both covid19 and the ash. Air in the town smells of sulphur, though the sea breeze near the coast helps dispel it.

Water remains a problem around the island. Some hotels in Kingstown have running water but no drinking water; some have neither.

The three truckloads of water sent from TT and supplies from other countries will help, but the issue remains critical.

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"Kingstown on edge after volcano explodes again on Tuesday night"

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