Orville Samuel / AP
La Soufrière volcano erupted explosively on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent last Friday. For nearly a week, periodic eruptions covered the island with ash, and volcanic streams of molten rock and gas gushed down the mountain slope. Residents have been displaced and left without clean water or electricity, adding a humanitarian emergency to the mix.
The eruption of La Soufrière forced about 30 villages in the northern part of the island to evacuate. A report by the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization said 16,000 to 20,000 people were affected. More than 4,000 people occupy 89 public shelters. Two thousand others confirmed that they were staying with friends or family.
Despite mandatory evacuation orders from Prime Minister Ralph Gonçalves early last week, 127 people were rescued from Ovia, a town in the island’s northeast and within the volcano’s danger zone.
The United States is working to bring Americans off the island. In cooperation with Royal Caribbean Cruises, the US Embassy will transport US citizens from St. Vincent to the Dutch Sint Maarten on Friday free of charge.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Monday that the eruption of the volcano left the entire population of St. Vincent, 110,000 people, without clean drinking water or electricity. Access to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has been restricted since the eruption began. Airports are closed and sea travel is restricted, hampering support efforts.
The biggest problem is clean water, UN Resident Coordinator for Barbados and Eastern Caribbean Didier Trebuck said at a briefing on Wednesday. The water system is closed, so any drinking water comes from outside the country. “We are facing a situation with a great deal of uncertainty, as well as a humanitarian crisis that is growing and could last for weeks and months,” he said.
The UN said it had deployed water and hygiene supplies in nearby Barbados, including 60,000 masks and medical gowns. In addition, PAHO will purchase 50 water tanks and pumps, chlorine test kits and more needed for health clinics.
The dome of the volcano was completely destroyed during the periodic eruptions. More than 460 million cubic tons of rocks and earth are propelled into the atmosphere. The winds carried the ashes to the neighboring islands of Barbados, Grenada and Saint Lucia.
Experts predict that La Soufrière will continue to explode. The University of the West Indian Center for Seismic Research said the explosions and ash were expected to continue over the next few days. The volcano shows a pattern of episodic explosions with long pauses. UWI expects more explosions of a similar or larger scale.
Pyroclastic flows continue to threaten the areas immediately surrounding the volcano. These streams of superheated gas, rocks and debris bring down the face of the mountain, destroying everything in their path. They also move at incredible speeds, averaging 60 mph, but capable of reaching speeds of over 400 mph. These streams appear to have traveled through valleys on the east side of the island to the Rabaka River. However, these pyroclastic currents can occur anywhere in the immediate vicinity of the volcano.
Trebuck said the St. Vincent crisis would not be short-lived. Even when the volcano stops erupting, which could happen in weeks, it expects the challenges to last more than six months. “In fact, 100% of the population is indirectly affected by the situation,” Trebuk said. The UN will call for funding to help Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the coming months.