We knew it was coming, but it was still a sobering sight to view pictures of that 3-mile plume of smoke and ash that was belched out of La Soufrière volcano in St Vincent and the Grenadines following multiple eruptions on Friday. It was a reminder that Mother Nature can sometimes be brutal on us humans as her everyday events unfold within their own dynamics and logic. In this case, molten rocks (lava) under her crust had once again escaped, as it did eons ago through a crack. The lava had accumulated to form the very island of which Mt Soufriere the volcano is its highest point.
“Soufriere” means “sulphur outlet” in French, and reminds us that the WI rupture in the earth’s crust is not confined to St Vincent, but formed the nearby islands of Dominica, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, which all have their “Soufrieres”. It also reminds us that the Europeans took the notion of “hell”, with its molten sulphur being under the earth, very literally. The St Vincent “Soufriere” has exploded on five occasions in recorded history, the previous most recent being in 1979. The one on May 6, 1902 was the deadliest, and took almost 2000 lives, most of them the Indigenous Caribs, whose culture and existence were almost completely wiped out. But the damage in St Vincent pales in comparison with the simultaneous one of Mt Pelée in neighbouring Martinique, which took 29,000 lives.
This history reminds of the destructive potential of the “forces of nature”. Fortunately, since that explosion that inaugurated the 20th century, the authorities have been very proactive in dealing with their impact. There were no lives lost, for instance, in the 1979 explosion, and in this instance, there were physical warnings of impending volcanic activity since last December. These were monitored by the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre, and, as such, when the “red alert” was issued last Friday, the evacuation plans for 16,000 persons resident in the “red zone” around the volcano, in the northernmost section of the island, kicked into action.
By today, it is expected, the evacuation would have been completed, but since it is predicted that the volcanic activity could last for months, these 16,000 persons would have to be housed and otherwise accommodated during that time. This is beyond the capabilities of the government of this island of just 100,000 persons, and as such we, the people of the Caribbean, will have to lead the way in taking care of our brothers and sisters. The revelation that there were nearly 5,000 persons of Guyanese descent living in St Vincent – not necessarily in the “red zone” – must have surprised many, but it is a reminder that when the Burnhamite dictatorship had reduced our nation to penury, the small islands of the Caribbean – members of Caricom – provided succor to thousands of our citizens.
It was therefore most appropriate that President Irfaan Ali, along with several heads of other CariCom States, immediately called Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves to offer concrete support to his nation. Not that it is a quid pro quo, but Guyanese should never forget when PM Gonsalves, – then the incoming Caricom Chair – rose to the occasion when the PNC was attempting another electoral rigging and advised David Granger to “take your licks like a man”.
It is most unfortunate that this tragedy exploded when St Vincent, like the rest of us, is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. They have recorded 1789 cases, with 10 of them resulting in fatalities. While this is three times better than our death rate, the evacuation realities may force persons to ignore social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols and, as such, they will all have to be vaccinated. Because of this threat, the region will also have to offer some of its vaccine supply to St Vincent in addition to the food, clothing, tents etc that have been mentioned.
All Guyanese must rise to the occasion and offer help.