SAN JUAN – The three scientists credited with helping save lives ahead of a recent explosive volcano eruption in the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent are known to locals simply as Richie, Rod and TC.
The team huddled indoors for weeks on little sleep to study and alert the government about activity at La Soufrière, whose eruptions last month displaced nearly 20% of the population and prompted the United Nations to seek $29 million to help the island recover from the devastation.
More than 16,000 people fled the ash-covered hills and homes in northern St. Vincent while the scientists stayed behind. They filed two reports a day and worked in shifts to keep a constant eye on the temperamental volcano as ash kept falling from the sky, blanketing the island’s lush green environment in monotone gray.
“You get kind of used to having ash in your food, in your hair, in your nose. You sleep in a fine layer of ash. It gets very uncomfortable,” said Richard Robertson, a geologist and volcanologist with the University of the West Indies’ Seismic Research Center who oversaw the team in St. Vincent.
The observatory, built about 6 miles from La Soufrière, was located close enough to the volcano to give scientists a full view of it but far enough so that they remained out of danger. It is divided in two: the air-conditioned office where all data including recordings from a seismometer were analyzed and compiled and a room also sealed off from ash that lacked air conditioning and served as the bedroom for all three.
Like many of those affected by the eruptions, the scientists ate a lot of dried and canned goods, although people would drop off donations including fresh fruit, homemade smoothies and even a lasagna from the wife of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, while local residents came by with buckets of water when the team lacked running water for about a week.
“There were two days in which we were a bit smelly,” Robertson said with a laugh. “It was an intense period. We were focused on what we were doing, so we didn’t notice as much.”
A minor eruption in December allowed scientists to set up monitoring stations that helped them collect enough data to recommend evacuations less than a day before the April 9 explosive eruption that shot a plume of ash 32,000 feet (10 kilometers) into the sky as lightning crackled through it.