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Volcano Threat On Pacific Island Triggers Mass Evacuation

Thousands of people are trying to get off of Ambae island in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, where a volcano's increasing activity has created fears of a strong eruption. Some 11,000 people live on the island.

As of Thursday, some 8,000 people had crowded into evacuation centers on Ambae, emergency officials said. Authorities then expanded the effort to a complete evacuation, saying residents and families would be taken to three nearby islands.

The mass exodus is being carried out primarily via boats; it might not be complete until next Friday, Oct. 6, officials say.

"Volcanoes can't be compared to tropical cyclones," Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai was quoted as saying by the Vanuatu Independent. "It's possible dangers are not known hence we must always be on the safe side."

"Our problem is to always take precaution and ensure people's lives are in good hands," Salwai said, before adding, "Continue to pray for our loved ones, families and friends on Ambae."

Vanuatu has asked its neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, for help in coping with the crisis — including aid, food and supplies for those now displaced. The country lies roughly a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii.

Looming nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, the Manaro Voui volcano is currently described as being in "an ongoing moderate eruption state" by the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geohazards Department. Its alert level is at 4 — one short of a "very large eruption."

The volcano, also known as Lombenben and Aoba, is almost directly in the center of Ambae, an oblong island whose population is grouped primarily along the coast, particularly in the northeast. Officials say they're particularly worried about the area east of the volcano, where a large lahar — a destructive mudflow — would likely hit. On the west side, they say, heavy ash could fall from the sky.

Other hazards include acid rain, flying rock and gas. Vanuatu's disaster agency also warns that in addition to the threat of a very large eruption at the volcano's caldera — it's home to three lakes — new vents and cones could also open.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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