The eruption of La Soufriere volcano in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) last Thursday was long-awaited and expected, but its effects could not have been predicted, ash clouds flying high and spreading as far as Barbados.
The evacuation was planned and though initially chaotic, improved with time and better management.
Following the Red Flag from The UWI’s Seismic Research Centre (SRC), national emergency units in neighboring islands (like Saint Lucia’s NEMO) sprang into action advising residents about how to protect themselves, while Health authorities also had to prepare for arrival of evacuees.
OECS (Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) neighbors – Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia – all opened their hearts, skies and ports to invite and welcome evacuees.
But understandably, Saint Lucians and other fellow OECS citizens also want assurances that evacuees are vaccinated against COVID-19 and those not vaccinated are being quarantined at hotels.
Cruise lines have offered ships to transport evacuees but are unwilling to keep them aboard for lengthy periods; and Venezuela has also provided a vessel to assist in shipping people and supplies.
The Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (CDEMA) is coordinating the regional emergency responses, while the OECS is handling the marshalling of international and regional assistance.
And other CARICOM member-states – from Jamaica to Guyana – have been offering and providing assistance with immediate needs from water and food supplies to cash donations.
The level of regional response was enough to bring SVG’s Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves to tears while addressing journalists last weekend and the Caribbean has once again shown it can and will rise from ashes like the proverbial phoenix.
Of course, like with the distribution of COVID vaccines, the initial international responses have been very little at the time when most is needed – the UK announced an initial 100,000 Pounds (Sterling) for a nation of over 100,000 people.
Caribbean people, spurred by recent experiences – from increased hurricanes and natural emergencies accelerated by Climate Change and the health emergencies that have come in the four decades between AIDS and COVID-19 – have gradually equally sharpened regional responses to neighborly disasters.
The decade between Hurricane David (1979) and Hurricane Gilbert 1998) marked a clear intensification in the number and frequency of hurricanes.
In the past 40 years, five major hurricanes have hit the region: David (1979), Gordon (1994), Jeanne (2004), Katrina (2005) and Hurricanes Maria and Irma (2017).
The first La Soufriere eruption in SVG was recorded in 1718, followed by others in 1812, 1902, 1979 and 2021.
There was a similar La Soufriere eruption in Montserrat in 1995, followed by the major Haiti earthquake of 2010.
Apart from CARICOM’s 15 nations and the OECS’ six independent countries, hundreds of vulnerable tiny islands dependent on Europe and the USA have also been affected by the annual hurricanes over the past 40 years.
These include: British-owned Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Virgin Islands (BVI) and Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI), as well as the Dutch Antilles, the French Overseas Territories and the US Virgin Islands.
Repeated emergencies have over that time created the type of intuitive, almost-natural active, rapid-response characteristics that instinctively arise at times like these.
Saint Lucians remember collecting and dispatching relief efforts for Dominica more than once in the last five years, with help going as far up the island chain as Cuba (Hurricane Irma, 2017).
Thing is, though, all signs are that we have just started in this new round of emergency Caribbean solidarity and assistance for SVG.
Geologist Professor Richard Robertson says: ‘The ongoing activity and pattern [in SVG] are similar to the 1902 eruption’ and ‘it means that the eruptions will cause more damage and destruction…’
Volcanologists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) have also been monitoring La Soufriere and Simon Carn, Professor and Volcanologist at MTU, says emissions of Sulphur Dioxide (SO₂) at La Soufrière are already the largest in the Eastern Caribbean in the ‘satellite era’ since 1979.
Carn also says they are ‘More significant than any of the explosive events measured during the eruption of Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat since 1995.’
An article by Ernesto Cooke on April 11, 2021 entitled ‘Scientist says La Soufriere is Reproducing the 1902 Eruption, Destruction Ahead’ noted that previous eruptions and hurricanes in the same area of SVG ‘always presented challenges to the authorities charged with managing the crisis and its aftermath.’
It notes: ‘The eruption affected the same parts of the island that had been impacted by prior explosive eruptions in 1718 and 1812, and hurricanes in 1831 and 1898, with consequences that disproportionately affected those working in and around the large sugar estates.
‘The official response to the eruption, both in terms of short-term relief and remediation, was significantly accelerated by the existence of mature plans for land reform following the collapse of the sugar market.’
The Caribbean has therefore been building response capacity from Slavery days. Today, while America and Europe treat people from developing countries seeking better or fleeing wars as ‘refugees’, OECS nationals have to treat Vincentian evacuees as fellow citizens in distress, with equal rights in each territory as CARICOM citizens in every member-state.
Vincentian evacuees in Saint Lucia will therefore qualify for and have to be afforded equal rights under the OECS’s Treaty of Basseterre.
This sense of regional solidarity has been tested more than once before and each time found unfailing, as Caribbean people feel today just as bad for Vincentians as they did for Haitians after the 2010 earthquake.
The prognosis today is for more testing times ahead as small island Caribbean nations already afflicted by COVID-19 and vaccination uncertainties now have to respond to the SVG eruption and evacuation aftermaths, from ashes to evacuees.
But the prescription is for more regional solidarity and action – and again, for more reliance on the proven accuracy of the scientific predictions and attending recommendations from The UWI’s SRU.