By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Apr 16, 2021)
“If you think you are going through hell, keep on going. You will come out on the other side.” — Former British Prime Winston Churchill
Since 2010, we have experienced a string of disasters. There were Hurricane Tomas, droughts, the Christmas floods of 2013 and now the La Soufriere volcano’s eruptions. Each of these catastrophes does severe damage to our developmental efforts as well as cause death, destruction and hardship among our people.
The eruptions, which began on Friday, April 9, have surpassed those that commenced on April 13, 1979. The dome, which built up in the crater of the volcano, has been completely blown away. Professor Richard Robertson, the top scientist monitoring the explosions, has disclosed that exceedingly hot material belched out of the crater, races down the mountain slope and reached down to the sea.
Robertson has also said that the eruptions can go on for days, weeks or months up to about a year. Even with significant assistance, this beautiful slice of paradise and our people will be in for a rough ride for an extended period if these projections hold. The road is rough, and the tough is about to get going.
These eruptions have caused significant dislocations. Estimates are that about 16,000 residents of the northern red zone have been moved into safer areas to the south of the island. Amazingly, more than 10,000 of them have found shelter and assistance with families, friends and other well-wishers.
The solidarity and goodwill of our people are inspirational. Most have taken it as a bounding duty to pitch in and help. Many volunteered and donated precious time, money, food and clothing. Some of us continue to visit shelters bearing gifts and encourage those in the camps to hold the faith.
Vincentians in the diaspora have, as is their custom, jumped to the call for assistance as if it’s their solemn duty. In due course, their contributions will arrive. These contributions, money and barrels will help ease some of the frustrations and difficulties faced by many in the shelters and those lodged with friends and family.
The generosity of our regional neighbours has been prompt and substantial. From the earliest hours after the eruptions, leaders across the region pledged assistance. St. Kitts, Guyana, St. Lucia, Barbados and Grenada offered humanitarian aid of all kind. Some regional leaders unconditionally committed to taking evacuees to ease the strain on Kingstown, thus providing comfort to those in dire need.
Further afield, tourist liners owners also offered to sail persons to destinations across the region free of cost and without restrictions. Countries big and small empathised with our suffering and offered water, cots, foodstuff and other essentials.
It is an astonishing story that the government could not find sufficient persons willing, ready to jump on the cruise ships to safety on neighbouring islands. There were reports that many of them would have been housed in hotels in neighbouring countries, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic seriously hampered the tourist trade leaving many hotels unoccupied.
PM Gonsalves announced that the tourist liners dispatched to our shores were asked to leave because people preferred to tough it out in local shelters rather than travel to foreign lands. Is it that nationals decided against evacuation because neighbouring islands were not sufficiently attractive? Would they have made a different choice if promised relocation to England or the United States?
The eruption of the La Soufriere volcano comes at an awful time for our country. We are coming off the worse dengue fever outbreak in memory. Although spared the rough and unhealthy ravages of coronavirus infections, our economy sputters along as the world enters its second year battling the WHO declared pandemic.
There will be ample time to analyse, interrogate and deconstruct the adequacy of the government’s preparation for the eruption, Culture and Tourism minister Carlos James’ statement to evacuees in Chateaubelair. “This is not a drill. This is a pandemic. Anyone going into a government operated facility will be vaccinated,” or the authenticity of PM Gonsalves’s statements that regional governments and or cruise ship owners demand evacuees be vaccinated.
Now, what is needed is an all hands on deck, I am my neighbours’ keeper, a united national approach to our predicament. We are all in this together. We have our brothers and sisters from the Red Zone to care for. There is a massive clean up task ahead to remove tonnes of ash and dust that blanketed the island.
Reconstruction and rehabilitative work loom large. Experts have said severe mental health issues can be expected among citizens, particularly among those directly impacted by the destruction and dislocation we witness in the Red Zone. Many of our kit and kin from the northwest and northeast of St. Vincent may be away from homes for an extended period. After the 1979 eruption, residents from those areas were unable to return for four months. They may have a longer wait this time. Their plight is made worse because many homes have been destroyed.
Because the entire island is carpeted with ash and dust, there is a real possibility that we may experience a massive increase in respiratory ailments in the near to immediate future. To mitigate this risk, citizens will be well advised to continue wearing a mask until the rainy season.
Disasters always present teachable moments. All of us are forced to learn crisis management. And some of us have been exemplary. The volunteers at the centres, Professor Robertson for his outstanding, level headed scientific predictions and analysis of the volcano, Thornley Myers at VINLEC and Garth Saunders CWSA and their staff for ensuring and restoring our electricity and water supply, police and Coast Guard officers, and members of the business community. Even PM Gonsalves deserves praise for his chirpy optimism.
Vincentians need a strong dose of stoic optimism now and in the foreseeable future because we will need much more than faith to pull us through. But as calypsonian Black Stalin reminds, ‘We can make it if we try, just a little harder.”
We got this SVG. We are accustomed to hanging tough.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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