By Catarina Demony and Pedro Nunes
SAO JORGE, Portugal – With no idea when they might return, a retired couple had their picture taken outside their beloved house before leaving Sao Jorge, an island in Portugal’s Azores that is bracing for disaster following a series of small earthquakes.
Fatima and Antonio Soares, who are in their 70s, decided to leave their home along with dozens of other residents on Saturday, a week since thousands of tremors started to rattle the volcanic, mid-Atlantic island.
Seismologists fear the more than 12,700 tremors, which have had a magnitude of up to 3.3, could trigger a volcanic eruption or a powerful quake.
“I asked the taxi driver to please take a picture of us because I don’t know if my house will look the same when I come back,” Fatima said as the couple waited at Sao Jorge’s airport for a flight to the nearby island of Terceira.
“Tears started to fall straight away,” she said.
The couple, who were on the island when a big quake struck in 1964, are staying at a small hotel for the time being but hope to return to their island, home to around 8,400 people, as soon as possible.
“Leaving our house at this age is hard,” Antonio said.
Dozens of other Sao Jorge residents also left early on Saturday, with the latest government figures showing about 1,250 people left the island on March 23 and March 24 alone.
The region’s CIVISA seismo-volcanic surveillance centre raised the volcanic alert to Level 4 on Wednesday, meaning there is a “real possibility” the volcano could erupt for the first time since 1808.
“Annually Sao Jorge has few earthquakes and now we’re talking about thousands,” seismologist Joao Fontiela, who is on the island setting up seismic monitoring stations, told Lusa news agency.
He thinks the current situation could drag for months.
CIVISA said there was “no evidence that a volcanic eruption was imminent” but said such a scenario could not be discounted. The number of earthquakes remains above normal levels, it said.
The island’s ports said on Saturday they were preparing in case of a natural disaster, and authorities are drawing up plans to keep livestock and other animals safe.
Care home residents and those hospitalised in the municipality of Velas, where the majority of the seismic activity has been recorded, have already been transferred to the other side of the island.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Guillermo Martinez and Pedro Nunes in Sao Jorge Editing by Helen Popper)