Four cruise ships from three cruise lines sailed to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent last week to assist in evacuation efforts after the eruption of La Soufrière volcano.
Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises all deployed ships on April 8 to St. Vincent, the largest island of the southern Caribbean country Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) island chain, which is located in between Saint Lucia and Grenada.
Carnival Paradise, Carnival Legend, Royal Caribbean International’s Serenade of the Seas and Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Reflection all reportedly arrived last week to assist with rescue efforts.
“The crew has been preparing beds, provisions, and supplies. We are thankful for and proud of this small group of people who always and unwaveringly go above the call of duty to help in any way they can,” Royal Caribbean tweeted on April 10.
Carnival Cruise Line, also on April 10, tweeted this picture of its team preparing for the evacuation.
“We are awaiting next steps from St. Vincent government on evacuation support. Meanwhile Carnival Legend has trained Deck&Engine team to help with passenger check-in,” the company tweeted.
Dormant for decades
La Soufrière, the highest peak in Saint Vincent, has had five recorded eruptions since 1718 and, until now, it had been dormant since 1979. The name, La Soufrière, means "sulfur outlet" in French.
The volcano starting rumbling in December 2020, and then, on Friday (Apr. 9), it erupted, spewing dark ash plumes into the air, forcing thousands from surrounding communities to evacuate their homes.
On Friday, some 4,500 residents near the volcano reportedly left their homes via ships or by road, said Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves at a news conference.
Residents of the region’s “red zone” constitute more than 10 per cent of the country's population and the disaster zone was said to impact roughly 6,000 to 7,000 people, reports say.
Reports on Saturday morning said that clouds of volcanic ash could be seen hovering over Barbados.
By Sunday, reports indicated that about 16,000 people in St. Vincent had to flee their ash-covered communities.
The UWI Seismic Research Centre reported several explosions from the volcano since Friday, the latest being early Monday morning (April 12) – the biggest eruption of ash and hot gas yet.
Vaccinated passengers only?
The coronavirus crisis, however, only adds to the complications of managing an evacuation during a volcanic eruption as officials try to uphold health and safety protocols.
Shelters on the island reportedly limited the number of people they could take in due to social distancing measures.
On Friday, Prime Minister Gonsalves told media that the neighbouring islands of Dominica, Grenada and Antigua had agreed to take evacuees in and cruise lines could ferry them over — just as long as passengers were fully vaccinated.
"The chief medical officer would be identifying the persons already vaccinated so that we can get them on the ship," Gonsalves said at a press conference.
Cruise lines are currently fighting for an industry-wide restart under the premise of limiting cruises to fully vaccinated guests only.
As to how this on-board protocol has played out during St. Vincent’s evacuation has resulted in differing reports on COVID-19 vaccines and whether or not they are a requirement for passengers during an emergency.
News stories about cruise ships leaving non-vaccinated people behind in St. Vincent surfaced over the weekend, resulting in a firestorm of criticism from Twitter users.
Cruise companies, however, were quick to point out that they are not making vaccines a requirement for this particular rescue effort and that any measures being taken were being led by government officials.
“Carnival has not made vaccines a requirement of this humanitarian mission. Government officials in St. Vincent have offered to do their best to make sure all who board our ships will be tested and vaccinated but that is at their initiative,” Carnival Cruise Line tweeted on April 9.
Royal Caribbean issued a similar statement, tweeting that “government officials of St. Vincent have offered to do their best to make sure all who board will be tested and vaccinated to receive refuge, but this is at their initiative.”
On April 10, Michael Bayley, President and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, took to social media to correct the string of news reports that claimed cruise ships were only accepting vaccinated individuals.
“Whatever happened to truth in Journalism,” Mr. Bayley wrote on his Facebook. “Media reports we only will evacuate vaccinated passengers from St. Vincent. We have stated that all passengers to be evacuated will need a negative Covid test.”
The UWI Seismic Research Centre said on Monday that the "effusive eruption is on-going, and the volcano is still dangerous."
"Scientists are currently unable to say if or when this may happen given the inherent uncertainty associated with volcanic systems. Considering this uncertainty, the monitoring network has been strengthened to make it more likely that any signs of escalated activity will be detected, and sufficient warning be given to authorities," the centre said in a statement.
The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) has activated the Regional Response Mechanism comprising a group of regional experts to support the ongoing eruption in St. Vincent, the centre said.
"At this stage, it is unlikely that the volcano will impact other islands. However, should the eruption escalate, volcanic ash may be emitted and may impact neighbouring islands," the centre noted.
Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today