WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The 11,000 residents of a Vanuatu island who were evacuated from an erupting volcano will likely need to wait at least two more weeks before they can return home, officials said Wednesday.
Government ministers have decided to extend a state of emergency on Ambae island until Oct. 24 even though the Manaro volcano has stabilized.
All of the island's residents were moved by boats to surrounding islands in the Pacific archipelago in an evacuation effort that ended last week.
Government spokesman Hilaire Bule said officials need the extra time to check the island's water supplies and sanitation and to plan an orderly resettlement.
He said the island was probably safe enough for residents to return immediately.
"But we need to make a good plan," he said. "We cannot just go and ship all the people back."
Officials have downgraded the volcano's activity to Level 3 on a scale in which Level 5 represents a major eruption. The volcano was at Level 4 during the evacuation.
Brad Scott, a New Zealand volcanologist who was helping in Vanuatu until earlier this week, said the volcano was continuing to spew volcanic ash and have regular explosions. But he said the amount of molten material coming to the surface had slowed.
He said that previous eruptions at the volcano had lasted about a month or six weeks, and that the current eruption had lasted a month and appeared to be following a similar pattern.
Scott said he expected the activity at Manaro to continue decreasing down to a Level 1 or 2 in the coming weeks. He said most villages had escaped any major damage.
Officials say volcanic ash and acid rain has affected crops and water quality.
Most people on Ambae live a subsistence lifestyle by farming and fishing. They are currently being housed in schools, churches and tents on the islands of Espiritu Santo, Pentecost and Maewo.
Ambae is about 400 square kilometers (154 square miles) and is one of about 65 inhabited islands in Vanuatu, which is home to 280,000 people.
Vanuatu sits on the Pacific's "Ring of Fire," the arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes and volcanoes are common.