The eruptions of La Soufrière volcano are a stark reminder that the Caribbean territories share a common backyard, and the affairs of our neighbours are our concern too.
The ash that covers every metre of St Vincent is not the light, easily washed away ash of a wood or paper fire. It is hard, gritty, and mildly corrosive and the falling rock and volcanic glass is destructive to buildings, vehicles, crops, and animals.
In the Red Zone in St Vincent, roofs have collapsed under the weight of the ash, adding to the woes of the largely agricultural communities in the north of the island. Rainfall compounds the danger as the rain hardens the ash, increasing its destructive impact.
At the time of writing this editorial, scientists who have been monitoring the volcano have also reported pyroclastic flows down the mountainsides and into the valleys on both sides of the island. These rivers of hot gas, rocks and ash destroy everything in their path and even extend their destructive reach into the neighbouring sea.
La Soufrière has disrupted life for the 100,000 inhabitants of St Vincent and the Grenadines, destroying communities which may never recover from this disaster. There are more than 3,700 people in government shelters, citizens whose livelihoods and lifestyles were already threatened, or at least severely curtailed, by the COVID-19 pandemic. The homes, jobs, workplaces, schools, the mental and physical well-being of Vincentians are all prey to the devastation.
Of particular concern must be the vulnerable primary and secondary students as well as the students at regional universities, including The UWI. CSEC, CAPE and final semester university examinations are on the regional doorstep and special consideration must be extended to students whose lives have been disrupted so completely, but who still have to face the academic pressures of the day.
The reach of the volcano’s eruption extends beyond the island’s shores as strong winds in the mid- and upper-levels of the atmosphere carry the ash long distances, spreading the potential for destruction of the physical environment and the threat to health of all who are exposed to the noxious air-borne matter.
Barbados, about 200 kilometres to the east of St Vincent, was almost pitch dark at half past ten on Saturday morning and security cameras there recorded the ash falling steadily and relentlessly on that island. St Lucia and Martinique have also been affected and other islands in the Windwards are on alert for the effects of the eruptions.
While it is hardly likely that Trinidad and Tobago will suffer from the physical contagion of the ash, the disaster on our sister island remains a major concern to us, as it does to fellow island territories.
Offers of accommodation to displaced, fleeing Vincentians have been made by Barbados, Antigua, and Grenada. Four large cruise ships are on standby waiting to transport vaccinated evacuees.
Trinidad and Tobago has sent 50 soldiers to help with relief efforts and to take supplies of potable water, food, water tanks and other essential supplies. Local supermarkets, through their official organisations, are also sending more than TT $1,000,000 in foodstuffs to assist needy families. Venezuela and the USA are among nations rushing to lend assistance.
The strong familial links and trade ties that bind this region together make it imperative that we look after the welfare of our Vincentian brethren.
Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed our common responsibility for our environment and by extension, for our fellow human beings.
Hurricanes, floods, and other natural and man-made disasters bring our responsibility to be our brothers’ keepers into focus more than ever.