Two days before the La Soufriere volcano began erupting, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves had declared that his government may soon be unable to pay its salaries if the country’s economic situation does not improve. Now, a little over a week later, the island is facing one of its worst disasters in decades.
The La Soufriere volcano, located in the north of the island begun erupting on April 9, 2021. Gonsalves had said on local radio on Wednesday April 7 that if there was no economic progress in a month or two, his administration would not have the required funds to pay civil servants, pensioners and National Insurance Scheme contributions.
La Soufriere has been spewing huge plumes of ash in daily eruptions with occasional pyroclastic density currents, resulting in about 20,000 people fleeing for refuge in 87 shelters, homes of relatives and friends in safe zones and neighbouring islands.
The volcanic activity, which scientists say may continue for months, has sunk the country’s already struggling economy to its lowest. Officials say the country will need hundreds of millions of dollars to recover.
Currently, water is scarce, agricultural crops are destroyed and there is fear of a spike in Covid-19 cases. About 11 percent of St. Vincent’s population was vaccinated as of last Wednesday. The country was aiming to inoculate half of its population (50,000 people) by April month end.
In providing a Covid-19 update on April 15 St. Vincent’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Simone Keizer Beache expressed concern over new cases among evacuees. Two new infections were discovered at a home with relatives, one was confirmed in a shelter, exposing 12 others and two more in another shelter with eight people at risk of exposure to the virus. The CMO lamented that in one shelter, no one was vaccinated. Contact tracing and extensive testing is underway but not without resistance from residents.
The prime minister is also worried about the unwillingness of people to get tested.
He confirmed that two security officers at shelters had tested positive for the virus on Wednesday.
“There are people who are refusing to test – I am not even reaching the stage of taking the vaccine – but how can we meaningfully control the pandemic in a situation like this?” he asked.
“Even though you don’t have symptoms, and half of the people who test positive for COVID-19 don’t have symptoms, it is vital that we continue to do our testing,” he said.
Gonsalves also noted, “I can’t over-emphasize this, but we need to be responsible. This is not now a question of returning to normalcy and the economy and all of that, this is now the question of taking care of ourselves and our neighbour…our neighbour being everybody else.”
He also reiterated a call to residents who are still in the danger zone to evacuate.
Gonsalves condemned a foiled attempt by two individuals to rob vacant homes of evacuees earlier this week. In that regard, he said that police support coming from Barbados and Trinidad was timely.
“The intelligence was that they were there to break into houses and to take people’s important valuables and put them on a boat and go elsewhere and sell and so forth. We were looking for four people and we got two,” he said confirming their arrest.
Moreover, there have been clean-up initiatives in green zones aimed at not only addressing environmental health issues but also as a means of trying to get things back to normal.
The United Nations (UN), which is currently setting up an international funding appeal, warned that the humanitarian crisis in St. Vincent could continue for months.
Didier Trebucq, UN Resident Coordinator for Barbados and the Caribbean said that getting water to residents is the immediate priority while second on the list will be shelter management and the provision of cots and basic hygiene items. Thirdly, the clean-up of ashes for which the UN is already working with the European Union to create a team to address the issue, is also planned.
“We are about to initiate the UN funding appeal and response plan to support the humanitarian response, but also the early recovery for the next six months”, he said.
Other UN agencies like the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and the regional office of the World Health Organization are in St. Vincent assessing the needs of the country.
Digital registration is currently underway for cash vouchers which will be given to a number of beneficiaries through an initiative by the UN teams and Vincentian authorities.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy said it is coordinating with Royal Caribbean Cruises for a maritime evacuation of US citizens from St. Vincent on Friday, 16 April to Dutch Sint Maarten.
The embassy said that there is no cost or travel fare for the evacuation via the cruise ship but US citizens are responsible for their onward travel arrangements.
“Please plan accordingly, including potential hotel stays in Sint Maarten and booking onward commercial airline flights from the Sint Maarten Princess Juliana International Airport which offers direct flight to multiple U.S. cities,” the embassy said in a press release.
The embassy also noted that U.S. citizens who decide not to depart from St. Vincent should be prepared to shelter in place for an undetermined amount of time. It underscored that there are currently no future plans for additional evacuations.
Moreover, the Jewish community in St. Vincent has come together to provide much needed aid to the country.
Jews in St. Lucia have also chipped in. Rabbi Avraham Super, Co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of St. Lucia with his wife, Sternie said that in the interest of time, they would be delivering truckloads of supplies to St. Lucia’s National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) which will then ship it with their aid to NEMO in St Vincent, according to media reports.
But some good news – St Vincent’s Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar confirmed that despite the ongoing disaster and concerns about the sector, the island will be able to export its next consignment of root crops to its main trading partner in Trinidad and Tobago next week Monday. According to reports, exports to Trinidad and Tobago are estimated at $50 million.
Meanwhile, the St. Vincent government announced a 100 percent duty-free concession on barrels coming to the island. They however encouraged families to consider sending cash directly to their families instead of individual packages, to avoid congestion at the port and to help smooth out the logistics of recovery efforts.
Further, OECS leaders in a virtual meeting last week, confirmed that there was no officially authorized GoFundMe account for relief efforts and urged individuals not to be led astray by ‘arbitrary accounts’ portraying to be for La Soufriere relief.
“People who were willing to donate were asked to be vigilant and thoroughly vet the entity to which they intended to donate,” an OECS Communiqué said informing that the St. Vincent government is in the process of creating an official web platform in that regard.
Meanwhile, the island’s Cannabis Revival Committee and the Caribbean Fairtrade Working Group (CFWG) has said that it is fearful that the newly developing medical cannabis industry will not be given equal attention in the rebuilding process.
In a press statement, the groups said they are “calling attention to the plight of the traditional cannabis cultivators of the island as the country faces the double edges of the COVID pandemic and now the violent eruption of the La Soufrere volcano.”
According to the release, St. Vincent recently passed Medical Cannabis Industry laws.
President of the Cannabis Revival Committee, Junior Spirit Cottle said, “We had become wearied of having to hide our livelihood, often losing our loved ones as a result… We participated in the cannabis industry investing everything we got, and were excited with the prospects that we were going to be legal, and therefore what we earned weren’t going to run the risk of being confiscated by the authorities. Now, we have lost everything, and are facing extreme hardship.”
“The Working Group and the CRC is therefore calling on the support of our international partners and the SVG government to assist the recovery of the small cannabis cultivators and to give the farmers the same attention as any other industry in the country. This special attention is needed as many of the traditional cultivators have lost all that they have grown and their homes have been devastated by the volcanic eruption, and as such they are unable to now feed their families,” the release said.
Among other issues facing the island is the stealing of water from delivery trucks tasked to supply communities.
St. Vincent police in a notice to residents highlighted what they said were a “number of disturbing videos” circulating on social media depicting persons stealing bottled water from these trucks.
The police warned residents to desist immediately from this behavior or face prosecution.
The force said that while they understand that people are distressed at this time and are in need of water and other food supplies, it must be done in an orderly manner.
Media reports state that the Network of Caribbean Chambers of Commerce (CARICHAM) member chambers and local emergency management organizations are to coordinate support efforts based on the list of priority items shared by St. Vincent’s NEMO.
The latest explosion at La Soufriere occurred on April 16 at 6:15 a.m. According to the UWI Siesmic Research Center Facebook page, the eruption column was estimated at about 8000m high with an ash cloud seen moving towards the west of St. Vincent
The following is the latest update on the volcano, according to the center’s Facebook page.
La Soufriere, St. Vincent SCIENTIFIC UPDATE – 18/04/21 6:00 pm