Tears as Vanuatu evacuates volcano-hit island

PORT VILA, 08 AUGUST 2018 (REUTERS) – The first boatload of people fleeing a volcano in Vanuatu has reached a neighbouring island, officials said on Friday, as the government began the compulsory evacuation of residents who may never be able to return.

Some were crying as they left the Pacific island of Ambae, where a volcano has been spewing ash since September, said a local official who watched the first boat leave.

The government had earlier ordered a temporary evacuation, but a local official said it was unclear when or even whether the island’s 11,000 residents will be able to return after an increase in volcanic activity over the past few weeks.

“They really love this island, some of them were crying,” the head of the local government Alban Garae told Reuters by phone from Ambae.

Garae said the evacuation to the island of Maewo would be completed by Monday and new arrivals would be hosted by local families while the government finds land for them.

The Vanuatu government said Maewo was ideal for relocation, because it “has sufficient vacant land” and people from the two islands share strong cultural links.

“There are no signs of slowing down of the volcano,” it said in a statement on Friday.

A July 28 eruption sent rocks and ash more than 12 km (7 miles) into the air and gave off 300,000 tonnes of gas, forcing the cancellation of flights across the region, it said.

Vanuatu, is a sprawling cluster of more than 80 islands and around 270,000 people, 2,000 km northeast of the Australian city of Brisbane.

Perched on the geologically active “Ring of Fire”, it suffers frequent earthquakes and tsunamis and has several active volcanoes in addition to threats from storms and rising seas.

Although Ambae’s volcano has been active since 2005, the government has never previously needed to evacuate the island.

The mood on the first boat was somber, but orderly, said Nerida Williams, of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, an aid group assisting Ambae residents.

“People are naturally feeling apprehensive. For many, this is the first time they have left Ambae except for the evacuation in September,” she said by phone.

Garae said the government would support the Ambae islanders on Maewo for six months, and they would then be able to make a living farming land in the resettlement areas.

“Their first home is still on Ambae, and probably they will make a second home on Maewo” he said.

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