(WELLINGTON, New Zealand) — Vanuatu officials on Thursday ordered the complete evacuation of an island in the Pacific archipelago where a rumbling, belching volcano is threatening to blow.
Government spokesman Hilaire Bule said ministers decided they couldn't risk people's lives and so ordered the compulsory evacuation of Ambae island, which is home to about 11,000 people.
Island resident Lilian Garae said she could see "smoke coming out from the hills" and hear regular booming noises from the Manaro volcano. She said she was waiting to hear when she might have to leave her home and where she might be sent.
Ambae is one of about 65 inhabited islands in the Pacific nation about one-quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii.
Officials last weekend raised the activity measure of the volcano to Level 4, on a scale in which Level 5 represents a major eruption. On Monday officials declared an emergency and had been relocating people close to the volcano to other parts of the island.
New Zealand's military flew over the volcano on Tuesday, and said huge columns of smoke, ash and volcanic rocks were billowing from the crater.
Some residents have already left the island voluntarily. For them, it's a waiting game to see whether the volcano erupts or returns to normal activity that's not a threat. Officials say they have no real way of predicting what the volcano will do next and that evacuees will just have to wait it out.
Bule said the evacuation will be carried out by boat and continue through Oct. 6. He said residents will be moved onto nearby islands. Officials are setting up two sites on Pentecost Island, he said, where evacuees will be housed in government buildings or in temporary camp sites.
Dickinson Tevi, a spokesman for the Vanuatu Red Cross Society, said the relief agency has been shipping water and shelter equipment to Ambae island.
"People are quite afraid with the sound of rumbling going on," he said. "They are very uncertain and afraid."
Bule said the government had allocated 200 million vatu ($1.9 million) toward the evacuation effort and was deploying 60 police officers to help people leave and to ensure there was no looting.
"We've prepared for cyclones by putting evacuation centers on the island but we are not ready for a volcanic eruption," Bule said. "The government has to put a policy in place to cater for this in the future."
Vanuatu is home to about 280,000 people and is prone to natural disasters, with a half-dozen active volcanoes as well as regular cyclones and earthquakes. It sits on the Pacific's "Ring of Fire," the arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes and volcanoes are common.