July 30, 2001 – Scientists call it "ashfall" — like rainfall or, in less temperate climes, snowfall. It started silently settling on the Virgin Islands and eastern Puerto Rico Sunday night, catching everyone by surprise when the sun came up.
The fresh volcanic ash that residents found coating their immediate worlds Monday is unsightly, abrasive and a hassle to clean up, but it's not toxic. However, breathing it in may cause trouble for young children, the elderly and anyone with chronic respiratory ailments.
That's the expert information to be found in a web site section titled "What to do in case of an ashfall." It's information from the U.S. Geological Survey and the state of Washington's Emergency Management Division that can be found at What to do during ashfall.
What initially was misdiagnosed as "Sahara dust" is, in fact, the airborne matter from a "volcanic event that occurred on the island of Montserrat," as a release Monday from the Planning and Natural Resources Department put it. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration issued advisories throughout the day Monday on the fallout from the Soufriere Hills volcano.
Reports noted that "the thin, diffuse plume emanating from the volcano was being obscured by high-level clouds to the west of Montserrat," making it impossible to capture any satellite imagery. However, it said, "Activity at the volcano remains low, similar to what has been observed over the last several weeks."
The V.I. Health Department issued a release Monday advising persons with respiratory ailments to limit outdoor activities and seek to avoid inhaling airborne ash.
"The volcanic ash is described as a non-organic sulphur-based compound, which does not pose an immediate health hazard," the release stated. It noted that those with respiratory conditions may experience eye irritation, nasal congestion, tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing. If these symptoms persist, it said, medical attention should be sought.
Further, it said, if the ash has gotten into cisterns, "it should settle to the bottom within a day or so."
The advisory recommended that users of cistern water boil it for 3 to 5 minutes before using it for drinking or cooking.
The release from Planning and Natural Resources, issued earlier in the day, advised residents to disconnect or block roof downspouts leading to cisterns, a recommendation in times of hurricane as well due to the threat of salt water contamination. It recommended hosing down roofs before reconnecting the spouts.
However, Lesley Leonard, acting supervisor of the DPNR Air Pollution Control Program, questioned whether boiling water would have any effect, since the ash is not a bacterial substance. Also, she noted, the ash is not water-soluble. What is being disseminated through the air is gases and particulate matter. She said filtering should eliminate any ash-related danger from otherwise safe drinking water.
As far as cleaning up, the DPNR release said the ash can be removed from surfaces with water but recommended wearing a face mask while trying to remove it in dry form.
The Geological Survey web site also notes if volcanic ash gets into the inner workings of mechanical devices, from computers to cars, it can jam things up. It can contaminate and clog ventilation systems, water supplies and drains. And it can cause short circuits — "Power often goes off during and after ashfall," it states.
Cars all over the islands looked like misplaced mini-dinosaurs, covered in the gray, gritty ash. Farmers and car-wash operators were happy, but just about everyone else was perplexed by what to do about it. Many contact-lens wearers were in pain.
Carlos Robles, horticultural specialist at the University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service, said both Sunday's downpour and Monday's ashfall bode well for the territory's farming community. If there is a high concentration of potassium in the ash, it could be incorporated back into the soil, and "farmers are likely to see a difference in plant growth" for the better, he said. He hadn't been able to get the ash analyzed Monday.
St. Thomas resident Jimmy Magras, noting that his trees and plants were covered in ash, said he had heard about the potentially beneficial effects of the potassium and added, "I hope it's good, and not not good."
On St. Croix, North Shore resident Lisa Giorgi said she listened to discussion of the ash situation on a St. Thomas radio station Monday morning and only then went outside, shortly before noon, to see if her island had been affected. "I discovered my car was covered with it, and the leaves on all the bushes," she said. Then she realized that inside her home, "the furniture was covered, too." The matter entered the house through louvered windows and a screened gallery. There would simply have been no way to keep it out.
Giorgi's eyeball analysis of the ash was that "it sort of sticks. Indoors, it looks as if it's dusty, but you can't just brush it off; there's a residue that clings to the furniture. It's a terrible mess."
On St. Thomas, Jane and Jerry Immel went out on their tugboat, Lady Salvor, around 2 a.m. Monday to take out a container ship, and all appeared normal. At 4 a.m., they went out again to bring another vessel into the harbor — and found their boat covered in gray matter.
"We didn't know what to make of it in the dark," Jane Immel said. By the time they got back to Crown Bay in the dawn's early light, they had figured out the cause. "I hope I'm finished sweeping now," she said. According to meteorologists, the odds are against it.
Further ash may fall
While the air was clear over the Virgin Islands late Monday afternoon, skies remained overcast. It was Sunday's tropical wave that carried the ash northwestward from Montserrat to the territory and Puerto Rico Sunday. Another tropical wave moving across the Atlantic is expected to bring similar rains and heavy winds to the territory by Wednesday, the National Weather Service reported. It could well carry — and drop — another layer of volcanic dust.
The Soufriere Hills volcano on the island of Montserrat, about 275 miles south of the Virgin Islands, has been active since 1995. The current activity apparently is implosive, as opposed to explosive, and does not pose any immediate threat to those still living on the island.
For continuous updates on the volcanic ash emanating from Montserrat, see the Washington Volcanic Ash Advisories page of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Satellite Services Division web site http://www.ssd.noaa.gov/VAAC/messages.html.