Sanya Compton | La Soufrière – it felt like an apocalypse
After a few months of effusively contemplating her next move, rumbling, glowing thoughts of magnanimous proportions, the La Soufrière volcano in my home country of St Vincent and the Grenadines erupted – explosively.
On April 9, the new normal that we had all begun to get used to under COVID-19 changed. The explosive eruptions of La Soufrière took us into the new normal, Version 2.1. For me, it is certainly an experience of a lifetime, one never to be forgotten.
What is most memorable, you ask. Hmm. Many things: the ash plume – ominous, incredible and enthralling, filled with forks of red lightening, letting you know she was definitely awake now! Next: the constant rumbling groan, like big heavy rocks caught up in a surge, smashing against each other. Finally, the ash. So much ash, everywhere, on everything, holding you hostage as it rained down, scratching at your eyes and throat like tiny shards of glass – the grey gloom that descended upon us. This was merely from my vantage point in the green zone … the safe zone.
One cannot truly imagine the level of awe and distress for those persons living in her direct path. People were evacuated from their homes and dwelling places in the thousands; homes and properties were inundated with ash, many collapsing under its pressure; hundreds of acres of farmlands destroyed, resembling the site of the April 1986 Chernobyl disaster; livestock either dead or wandering aimlessly in search of food and water amid the ashes; no running water in the majority of the country; power outages; business operations halted; only essential government workers (those who were not affected) assuming duties to provide needed assistance; economy on pause, again. This is a disaster! This was Day One.
EXPLOSIVE ERUPTIONS CONTINUED
The explosive eruptions continued. The skies stayed grey for a while. There was a glimmer of hope in the coming days, but that didn’t last very long. The eruptions continued. Given the seriousness of the situation, Vincentians across the country and within the diaspora mobilised quickly and in great numbers to provide support. Our friends, allies, inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations, regionally and internationally, came to our aid. It was heart-warming and awe-inspiring. The immediate goal was to secure and save lives. Many persons – families, children, the elderly – moved to shelters and private homes with little to nothing, left wondering, what now? Will this end soon? When can we go back home? Did my house make it? Are my livestock alive? Are my pets okay? What do I do for a livelihood now? Will help ever get to us?
The dust is settling, she grows quieter, steaming, still commanding attention, still unpredictable.
So now we ask, were we ready for this magnitude of a disaster (especially one happening in times of a global pandemic)? Can we ever really be ready?
Ready? Ready may not be the best word. Ready assumes all eventualities and to be in a position to respond without any delays. So ready we were not, and ready we may never be. Prepared? From my perspective, we were prepared in some respects – the nation was informed by the government, by the volcanologist and some enthusiasts about the very likelihood of this disaster. We were made more knowledgeable about preparedness, and evacuation points and shelters were identified, and that information was also shared with the public. The basics were covered.
The advent of the eruption proved that there is much left to be desired in terms of effective planning, coordination, and communication. Existing deficiencies across various sectors of government and levels of governance have been magnified. There is a visible need for having an improved response to volcanic disasters, nationally and, perhaps, regionally. There are now more questions than answers (e.g. status of evacuees as time progresses, the economy, the education system, the environment, our policies).
PREPAREDNESS SHOULD BE WAY OF LIFE
The psychosocial, environmental, and economic impacts must not be considered as separate entities in any disaster. They happen in tandem, therefore, preparedness and strategies for improving national resilience and sustainability need to be truly reflective of this and be given full support and attention. What hurricanes have not taught us, we are learning from these explosive volcanic eruptions. Preparedness in the Caribbean region, where we are resource limited and disaster prone, should not have to wait until one is upon us. It should be a way of life. There is so much more that can be said and will be said by many others for years to come. The reality remains that being prepared is not a short-term response. It is a long term investment. The stakes are too high.
There is a lot of work here to do in light of the global pandemic compounded by a natural disaster. We must now do what we can to recover and rebuild more solid foundations in every national respect. A difficult task, but not impossible. I do not have all the answers, but I know that want to be part of the solutions.
Vincentians are a resilient people. I see it every day as I coordinate my own relief efforts to assist evacuees. We will bounce back. We will rise from all this ash, but we will need to be better prepared for it. That choice is clear.
- Sanya Compton, a native of St Vincent and the Grenadines, is a PhD candidate at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill - Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (UWI-CERMES), Barbados. Her current research and related project-work activities are focused on marine and ocean governance in the wider Caribbean region. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.