KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent and the Grenadines — A volcano in the southern Caribbean that had been dormant for decades erupted on Friday, spewing clouds of ash and smoke miles into the sky.
The volcano, known as La Soufrière, on the northern tip of the main island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, had started showing signs of renewed activity in late December. It moved into an “explosive state” on Friday morning, the National Emergency Management Organization said in a Twitter posting.
The eruption came a day after officials had raised the alert level following several small tremors detected at the volcano, with clouds of steam seen erupting from its peak. The country’s prime minister, Ralph Gonsalves, ordered a full evacuation of the area.
“All arrangements have now kick-started and the process begins,” Mr. Gonsalves said at a news conference on Thursday.
“I want to urge all our people to be calm — do not panic,” the prime minister said. “With God’s grace we will get through this very well.”
As of Friday morning, close to 20,000 people had been evacuated from the area surrounding the volcano, according to officials.
The population on the main island of St. Vincent had been on edge for months in fear of a eruption.
Some still vividly recalled La Soufrière’s last eruption, in 1979, which hurled debris thousands of feet but caused no fatalities thanks to a hastily arranged evacuation of residents to local beaches. Its ash reached as far as Barbados, 100 miles east. An earlier eruption, in 1902, killed nearly 1,700 people.
Cecilia Jewett, 72, a roads supervisor with the government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said she suffered through the 1979 eruption and recalled the scenes of panic and the desperate scramble for water, the sky darkened by ash and the overpowering stench of sulfur. Her father, she said, experienced the deadly 1902 event, and told stories of victims buried in ash, and corpses lying in the streets.
“Those stories come back to my mind on hearing that the La Soufrière was acting up,” she recalled when interviewed last December. “It’s just too much. These young people would not understand. They think it’s just an explosion.”
“The sulfur, what it does to your eyes, your breathing, your very existence,” she continued. “It was a time I would not want to relive.”
Government officials began conducting outreach last winter in areas closest to the volcano, briefing residents on evacuation protocols in case of an eruption, Mr. Gonsalves said in an interview in January.
The prime minister acknowledged then the challenges of conducting emergency operations during the pandemic but said that strict health protocols — like the obligatory use of masks and social distancing where possible — would be in place during evacuations and in shelters.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines has a population of 110,000 spread across three dozen islands. Most people live around the capital, Kingstown, on the southwestern coast of St. Vincent island. Though known as a boaters’ paradise, the country also has high rates of poverty and unemployment.
Ernesto Cooke reported from Kingstown, and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City.