Caribbean volcano erupts violently

SAINT VINCENT: Ash and hot gravel rained down Friday (Saturday in Manila) on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, after powerful eruptions from a volcano that had been dormant for decades sent thousands of panicked locals fleeing to safety.

The initial blast from La Soufriere, the highest peak in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, sent plumes of hot ash and smoke 6,000 meters into the air on Friday morning, the local emergency management agency said.

A second, smaller eruption took place on Friday afternoon, belching out a 4,000-meter-high ash cloud, the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center said.

“Evacuation of people in the red and orange zones to safe areas continues in earnest. Heavy ash fall has halted the process somewhat since visibility is extremely poor,” the National Emergency Management Ogranization said.

The 4,049-foot La Soufriere — French for “sulphur mine” — had not erupted since 1979 and its largest blow-up happened over a century ago, killing more than 1,000 people in 1902.

It had been rumbling for months before it finally blew. It is now likely to keep erupting for days or weeks, scientists at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago, tweeted.

“Once there is one explosive eruption it is likely others can occur,” the university’s seismological research center said. The emergency management agency warned that rainfall could harden the ash fall and pose a danger to human life.

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves started issuing evacuation orders late Thursday for residents in so-called red zones, home to some 16,000 people on the biggest island in the archipelago.

“Persons living in the ‘Red Zones’ are strongly advised to pack a quantity of personal items, secure your homes and animals; and be ready to be evacuated immediately,” police said in a statement after the eruption.

Zen Punnett, who lives on the 18-mile long island, said people panicked Thursday night as the evacuation orders came out but things were calmer on Friday.

“I can feel and hear rumbling here in the green safe zone. We can see a huge ball of smoke. Keeping calm as much as possible and praying,” Punnett said on Friday.

As of early Friday afternoon, most of the people in the red zone had been moved to safety, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency said.

Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises said they were sending two ships to assist the evacuation effort. Gonsalves said two more ships from cruise liner company Carnival were also on their way.

Those evacuated would be taken to shelters elsewhere in the island chain or other Caribbean territories that have offered assistance, such as Barbados and Saint Lucia, according to local media.