Soufriere Hills Volcano Takes Its Toll on the Territory

June 5, 2006 – Airlines canceled flights, the elderly and asthmatic have had trouble breathing, and several residents have complained of allergies, itchy eyes and scratchy throats due to the ash that made its way northwest from the Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat this weekend.
All Amercan Eagle flights had been canceled Monday morning, according to American spokeswoman Minette Velez. She said 28 Eagle flights had to be canceled Sunday afternoon and evening due to the ash, which has been moving into the area from the volcano since May 22 when a dome collapsed. (See "Volcanic Ash from Montserrat Blankets Virgin Islands").
Velez said Eagle personnel were working with American early Monday to redirect travelers on American flights. Velez could not say why American flights were still taking off while Eagle was grounded due to the ash. But by Monday afternoon the skies had begun to clear and American Eagle was getting back on track.
Velez said nine flights were operating Monday, with 18 cancellations. "We are beginning to normalize," Velez said. However, she added, it will take time to reposition the aircraft.
Meteorologist Scott Stripling from the National Weather Service in San Juan said "periodic venting" from the volcano was sending gases and ash toward the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. He said St. Croix got the worst of the ash over the weekend. He said he expected the wind to shift Monday, carrying the ash toward Tortola and then shift again carrying it back toward St. Croix.
Jeannine Mydlenski, director of respiratory care at Schneider Regional Medical Center, said for people with breathing problems, "Staying inside is one of the better things to do." She also said wearing a mask for those with asthma or other serious respiratory diseases should be considered.
Mydlenski said mostly she was seeing people suffering with sinus problems and eye irritations from the ash coming from the volcano. "It's particulate," she said, "little bits of rocks." Sore throats can also be one of the symptoms. She said the sinus problems were not from infections, however.
Michael Burton, spokesman for Schneider Regional, said he was suffering from eye irritation. "My eyes ballooned into golf balls," he said.
Burton said the emergency room was not reporting any new cases of respiratory illnesses, but personnel there did say those with breathing problems were experiencing greater difficulties.
It was hard on St. Thomas not to notice the heavy smell of sulfur in the air over the last three days. Dr. Derrick Grant, also of Schneider Regional, said, "The sulfur is incredibly strong." Grant noted that two birds dropped from flight and died at his house on St. Thomas's North Side over the weekend. He wondered if it could have been caused by the ash.
Ian Lundgren, biological science technician with the National Park on St. Croix, didn't discount the possibility, though he said, "We've never really looked at that." He said it was physiologically possible, however.
Meanwhile, Stripling said what the Virgin Islands was continuing to experience Monday afternoon was the residual of wind-borne ash and gas from a few days ago. He said there was nothing to be seen on the satellite images currently moving from Montserrat.
"It's sad," Mydlenski said. "It's never really lingered this long before."

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