Our week with a volcano

April 15, 2021

Reading time: 18 minutes

As Ailsa finishes locking the door and turns around, she sees a cloud that could only be described as Death Star-like in its imposition on the sky. The last of the sunset light gives parts of the dark mass a foreboding glow.

To say the past week has been surreal is an understatement. It was always going to be an interesting week – we were going to move from our quarantine accommodation to the home of Mirounga’s current owner (which is a cross between an impenetrable fortress and a Bond villain’s lair). We would also be getting our first taste of freedom after 2 weeks of confinement.

When you add in a volcanic eruption, clouds of ash and a Covid vaccine, it gets even more surreal.

We’ve been living with an erupting volcano for a week now. Here’s how it’s gone. If you don’t have time to read all of this, please scroll to the end to see how you can help the people of St Vincent.

Thursday 8th April

We knew the volcano was active, and has been since December 2020, before moving out. In all honesty, our familiarity with the amount of ongoing activity with Montserrat’s volcano made us less fearful. We’ve seen what a volcano can do, but we’ve also seen how expert monitoring can keep people safe.

Drums in the deep

There had been vague rumblings, both physical and in the Twittersphere, about the volcanic activity picking up pace. We get word in the late afternoon on Thursday 8th April that the volcano’s status has passed from amber to red alert. Dr Richard Robertson, Director of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre, along with the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, gave statements.

The overriding message was that La Soufriere was likely to erupt, but that nothing was certain. An eruption could take place in hours, or in days. There was a possibility that it might not erupt at all.

Bequia’s volcano risk

On Bequia, a different island and around 25 miles south of the volcano, we knew we weren’t in any real danger, so we felt no panic. Our friends in Montserrat, however, had spoken at length about ashfall. We’d walked around properties covered in ash, including the famous Air Studios. We’d seen a river valley increasingly disappear under lahar deposits.

Due to the typical wind patterns in the Caribbean, with the high altitude wind passing from west to east, we didn’t expect Bequia to be badly affected by ash. The last time the volcano erupted, in 1979, it was Barbados that was badly affected rather than the nearby Grenadines and St Lucia. That said, we didn’t want to take any chances.

Preparations begin

As soon as we hear the news, we start to secure every door and window at The Lookout, and in the upstairs apartment, we bring in cushions and close all internal doors. We can hear commotion in the nearby houses – others are doing the same. As in many disasters, fresh water would be the biggest concern. We fill every water bottle we can – it felt a lot like the time we prepared for a tropical storm on our wedding night. We also put some effort into getting most of our luggage packed away and the house clean and tidy.

Chris and Louise, our hosts, come round to check the house and to work out their options for shutting off water collection. There is no mains water on Bequia – it’s all ground sourced or rain collection, stored in huge tanks at people’s homes. to secure our supply, Chris cuts through the pipes that fill the tanks and seals them.

We note that after being perfectly clear for most of our time at The Lookout, the horizon has become very unclear. We’re not sure if this is from volcanic activity or not. We’ve had a sunset cam each night, live-streaming the sunset on Facebook. Tonight it’s pointless, the haze simply swallows the sun. We spend the evening checking the news constantly. With all the windows and doors sealed up, we find ourselves more grateful for some A/C at bedtime than usual.

Friday 9th April

Early in the morning we spot a cruise ship heading north to St Vincent – we’ve already read that there are a few on standby for emergency accommodation and evacuation. People in the Red Zone, at the north of St Vincent, are already on their way to shelters, or to family and friends in the south.

The first eruption

At o8:41 the volcano has it’s first explosive eruption. This isn’t the bubbling pot of magma people envisage – it’s a violent gas explosion which breaks through the existing domes on the mountain. We later hear that the dome which formed after the 1979 eruption and the one which has been building for the last few months are obliterated by this eruption.

From Bequia there’s really no sign – the air in general is so hazy that clouds block any view of the sky to the north.

Final preparations

It’s hard to focus on work, but we try. We are of course, constantly checking the news. One of our neighbours, Cathy, shouts across to introduce herself and check that we have water and food. Because it’s our last day of quarantine we don’t have much food, but we could do a few days on rice, pasta, veg and cereal. She too has been cutting off her water collection and sealing the house.

Chris and Louise are back in the afternoon to seal up the windows properly – upstairs there are some open air features. They also close up the A/C inlets, but we’ve found thankfully that with the windows closed all day and fans running the apartment stays cool. We make sure the terrace remains mostly free of furniture, and finish cleaning and packing.

We get word that the ash cloud has headed east, away from us, but it’s unclear if the wind direction at the surface may mean it comes back to us. We’re also worried for Barbados, which looks likely to be hit again.

A view to remember

The Second eruption takes place at 14:45, but we didn’t see the news until 15:20.

Colin watches the cloud grow

This time the air has cleared and the plume of ash is very visible. We stand on the deck and watch it grow slowly for an hour.

Once again, the sunset is very obscured, so we train our live stream camera on the volcano instead. We decide that nothing much is changing, so turn off the camera and start to lock up the upstairs apartment. This is at around 18:25.

Hat trick

Giving up on sunset

It probably takes 2-3 minutes to lock up. As Ailsa finishes locking the door and turns around, she sees a cloud that could only be described as Death Star-like in its imposition on the sky. The last of the sunset light gives parts of the dark mass a foreboding glow.

We missed seeing an eruption occur before our eyes, but saw the terrifying aftermath. We suddenly have an appreciation as to why ancient races made up stories of gods in the sky.

Back downstairs we can’t take our eyes off the cloud as the light disappears. Instead of seeing the heaving bulk of ash and gas, we can see forks of lightning. We eat pizza outside. Everything is eerily quiet.

It’s like the island is holding its breath.

Saturday 10th April

We’re awake at 6:45, and find a light covering of ash over everything outside. There’s very low visibility all around.

To test the level of ash falling, we clear some surfaces outside – by 8:30 ash is covering them again. Visibility is getting increasingly poor.

A haze of ash

Chris and Louise arrive to help us move. We could almost forget, amidst the chaos, that we are now free to leave quarantine. We’re glad that we’ve made an effort to clean the apartment, as Chris and Louise have decided to move in – the property they caretake is completely open, and unsafe to stay in.

At 9:30, as we are loading bags into the car, we can see ashfall around us. It’s not like snow, it’s too gritty. It feels sharp on our faces, and Ailsa finds it getting in her eyes when she removes her glasses. We try following the public health guidance to wet our masks, but it just makes them stick to our faces and hinders breathing.

The fortress on the hill

We arrive at our new accommodation on Mount Pleasant soon after 10:00. It belongs to Richard, the current owner of Mirounga, who is generously letting us stay until he sails her down from St Lucia.

An ashy welcome

It’s a home designed to be very open, with 16ft high Brazilian hardwood doors forming most of one wall, but of course it is all closed. There is ash everywhere outside, and despite the closed doors and shutters, quite a lot inside too. We try to clear a little in the kitchen but it just comes back. The pool which we had dreamed about through quarantine was already developing a thick layer of ash on the surface.

The island around us obscured. We’re in a dusty fortress, on a hill, and for all we can see could be totally alone. With so much ash in the air there’s not much we can do.

Freedom, kind of

Chris and Louise drop by again, this time to shut off the pool filter which has stopped coping with the ash. They give us the keys to Richard’s car, which they’ve been borrowing for its ability to shift luggage.

We venture into Port Elizabeth to buy food.

What we find is a ghost town, with almost everything shut. For the first time, we can smell the sulphur in the air, albeit briefly. There is enough ash in the air to hurt our eyes. After walking to four supermarkets, we finally find a fifth, Rolands, is open. We remember this place from past visits to Bequia – it’s a little of a fancy store cupboard shop but we’re able to buy a few staples and beer.

There’s still nothing much to do back at the house but check the news. The volcano is venting every 1.5-3 hours, with no signs of change yet. There is at least the suggestion is that the ash falling on us is from the initial explosion, so hopefully, it will stop.

Sunday 11th April

It rained heavily on and off in the night, but it’s done nothing to clear the ash. The most challenging thing about it for us is that we’re living in a courtyard-style home. From the kitchen and main living space, we must go outside to get to our bedroom or a bathroom, so we’re very conscious of trying not to walk ash around everywhere.

A soggy attempt to clean up

We spend a couple of hours trying to rectify our problem. We cannot sweep the wet ash, but by using bowls of pool water to sluice the ground we can clear a clean path between our room and the living space. It continues to rain on and off, and we’re both soaked through in the process.

When the rain finally clears the visibility around is much better. This gives us hope that that the ash cloud has moved on or been cleared by the rain. The sun is coming out, and we can finally see the views to the south and east.

At one point, as the air clears and we stand of the terrace taking in the view, we can hear the distant sound of singing in a church. It’s beautiful.

News from the north

It may feel hopeful in Bequia but Dr Robertson’s message is not a heartening one. He suggests that this eruption will be as bad as the one in 1902, and warns that there are pyroclastic flows beginning to form on the western side of the volcano. These are deadly and destructive tracks of gas, ashes and debris that can power down the mountainside at 100km/h with temperatures of 800ºC.

Mid-morning, we venture out to buy food again. We’re grateful that even though they are closing, Knights let us in and we can get enough food that we’d be fine for 5-7 days.

It’s a bright afternoon with the odd shower, and heavy rain late afternoon. Where we had swept up soon becomes ashy again – we don’t know if this is more ashfall or runoff from the rain. We get word that the wind will be veering overnight which hopefully should mean no more ashfall, and we go to sleep with the louvres on our window open for the first time.

Since the weekend

Since the weekend, we can’t say that Bequia has been much affected. By Monday afternoon the sky was clear and the cleanup had begun. We wish we could say the same for St Vincent.

Our week

On Monday the housekeeper Kathy arrived and started the enormous job of clearing up the ash. More familiar with the house’s water supply, she set to it with a hose and has made everything impressively clear. We’ve enjoyed getting to know her and sitting to eat a sandwich with another human after weeks of isolation, and we’ve tried to help with the cleanup effort after work. We were saddened though by news from our friend in Barbados at how bad the ash is there.

On Tuesday, we were lucky enough to get our first dose of the Astra Zeneca vaccine at the hospital. We also had our first taste of real freedom, taking a drive around the island, and going to the beach for a swim. At Lower Bay, life felt almost normal, with people enjoying a beer at Keegan’s. Only the distant clouds from the volcano told us otherwise.

After a night of post-vaccine fever, Wednesday was a day of rest. Thankfully we both felt better by the late-afternoon, when the newly-cleaned pool could be used again.

Volcano limbo

Things feel, for us anyway, a lot like they did a year ago during the early days of Covid-19. We were on lockdown but content, enjoying a beautiful spring in a deserted Edinburgh. We ourselves are fine and safe. The weather is glorious. We are in beautiful surroundings. It’s a kind of ‘Act of God’ limbo. But we check the news always, and we worry for others.

Mirounga remains with Richard in St Lucia. We’ve had a few days of debate over what to do, and we were considering even hitching a lift to get her. But we think that Richard will be safe to sail down in a few days. We know that if things get bad again we can leave her closed up tight and safely moored while we shelter on land.

La Soufriere

The volcano continues to erupt, but with a new pattern. Tuesday was the darkest day – at 6:30 La Soufriere exploded dramatically, 42 years to the day since its last major eruption. The cloud could be seen clearly from St Lucia. Pyroclastic flows were seen on the eastern slopes – the more populated side of the mountain, leading to concern for villages. Around 20% of St Vincent’s population lives in the Red Zone. There have been boiling rivers and lahars (streams of mud), and much of the island has a thick layer of ash. Crops will be ruined, and buildings need to be uncovered.

Explaining volcanoes, source unknown

More people were evacuated from the Red Zone, and thankfully there has been no word of loss-of-life or damage to villages. There has been an immense relief effort, with water and aid coming from Venezuela, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Martinique and St Lucia to name a few countries. There has though, also been reports of a heist on a water truck, and concerns about Covid cases rising in shelters, where thousands now wait. Although shelters made PCR tests mandatory, there were active cases on the island and they may not have picked them all up. Vaccinations are being offered, but the local population remains reluctant – vaccination was a prerequisite of the cruise ships taking evacuees, and many declined for that reason.

The good news, for now, is that the eruptions are now essentially gas venting, of lower force, and they are getting further apart. It seems like La Soufriere may be starting to die down, with no more milk in the pot to boil over (as Dr Robertson would put it).

We live in hope.


How you can help

One of the first things we wanted to do, safe in Bequia, other than cleaning up ash, was to see how we could help. We know that we are very lucky and that things are very different on St Vincent, only 8 miles away.

Action Bequia is a local charity that we can vouch for – it was founded by Richard, and we’ve seen the good work it’s done in action on the island. Unlike many charities, less than 2% of donations made to Action Bequia goes on administration. As a UK taxpayer, you can use Gift Aid to boost your donation, and similar options are available to US and Canadian taxpayers.

When you donate to Action Bequia, you have two choices. You can either let Action Bequia choose where to target the funds or specify a local initiative to support, such as Rise Up Bequia or the Grenadines Initiative.

Donate at – https://www.actionbequia.org/donatetosvgstvincentlasoufrierevolcanorelief.php

News sources

We’ve used social media for most of our news, having seen very little coverage by the UK media.

The main accounts to follow are –