‘There is great need all around’
Job, COVID vaccine concerns weigh on non-citizens in disaster-hit St Vincent
As the La Soufrière volcano continues to shower St Vincent and the Grenadines with uncertainty and discomfort, several Caribbean islands and non-governmental organisations have been rallying to help the eastern Caribbean country through the disaster.
More than one-fifth of the population and a quarter of St Vincent’s geographical space are directly affected by the eruption, with no timelines on when the volcano will go back to rest.
More than a week after eruptions began, Vincentians say the colour of the ash is now almost white as it spews more ash daily, affecting water supplies and visibility in sections of the country, and even as far away as Barbados.
“There are 78 government-approved shelters with about 3,000 residents. Another 17,000 persons are in the private homes of Vincentians, so relief efforts have to be directed at individuals in the shelters and in those homes which have taken in other members,” Kelron Harry, district superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene in the Windward Islands, told The Sunday Gleaner last week, moments after clearing emergency supplies at the port.
“We have been charged with receiving and distribution of aid – mainly water, but food supplies and some medical supplies. Water is the greatest need right now. Transport is also needed. Vincentians have been volunteering to help get into the areas we must go, but they don’t have transportation. So that is in great need,” said Harry.
“The need is great all round. There is not a spot in our country that wasn’t covered in ash. But people are willing to help and they are very appreciative of all the help they can get. We need baby food, diapers, milk, and sanitary stuff. Those are needed at the moment,” he explained. “The entire country is covered with ash and the air quality is very poor. When I breathe, I feel as if there is ash in my throat.”
Many non-residents currently living and working in the country are now facing a dilemma with job and tenure uncertain. Days before the eruption, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves had sounded a warning that the tourism-dependent country was in danger of not being unable to pay public-sector pensions and some salaries, as a result of economic downturn from the pandemic.
One Jamaican, who spoke to The Sunday Gleaner hours after another explosion occurred, said she has been living and working in St Vincent and the Grenadines for the last two years.
“The suggestion has been made for evacuation from St Vincent to other islands. The government is organising that, but once you have left the island, I would be essentially on my own. My understanding is that evacuation could be to Antigua. I don’t know anyone in Antigua, and so if I get there, what do I do? Do I go Airbnb or where?” she pondered.
Her contract was void of relocation allowances and all expenses are paid from her salary, as she accepted that no one could have predicted an eruption and the ensuing confusion, fear and anxiety currently being experienced.
But expense is not the only thing worrying the healthcare worker.
“The lines offering transportation are requiring that all persons be vaccinated before boarding and the receiving countries are saying that all persons entering must show evidence of vaccination. I have not made up my mind about taking the vaccine, so it means that if I don’t take it, I would have nowhere to go,” she explained.
Her job status remains precarious, and returning to Jamaica will be a last resort for the mother of one, whose child is also with her.
Other Jamaicans and citizens from other countries were also facing the same predicament.
Greatest needs, rallying support
An online study by University of the West Indies professors Dwayne Devonish and Justin Robinson of the Cave Hill Campus last week showed that 65 per cent of residents “perceived the most damaging effects of the volcanic activity to be on their lives, their families, communities and the overall country’s social and economic status”.
They related that their greatest need was water (87 per cent), followed by food supplies (64 per cent) and the need to clear ash from physical spaces (55 per cent).
Ten per cent of the residents who chose not to evacuate said it was due to lack of transportation, while others claimed that “others in their community were not leaving so they were doing the same”. A majority, 41 per cent, were unwilling to relocate to another island, and 32 per cent said they would only be willing to move if the situation was exacerbated.
Devonish said that the study “provided on-the-ground, real-time intelligence on the plight of Vincentians, their most troubling concerns and challenges, needed supports, resources and assistance and their views on the evacuation process/experience on the mainland”, and would be of great help in highlighting challenges and need in responding to the disaster.
He said that the findings were not surprising.
“In emergency and disaster-type situations like this one, it is common for people to prioritise their immediate needs and those of their families to ensure that their loved ones were adequately protected and secured before considering the needs of the wider communities. However, Vincentians are a very resilient and loving people and many of them were indeed willing to assist and support each other, especially in the evacuation process and within the shelters (expressed by more than 70 per cent of the sample).”
Barbados, approximately 119 miles away, has been impacted by the ashfall and emerging health concerns among its citizens. Days after the eruption, the Grantley Adams International Airport was closed because of poor visibility.
No stranger to the various Caribbean disaster zones is retired Salvation Army Major Denzil Walcott, who has weathered many storms in his seven decades and has been on countless help missions.
Walcott was in Jamaica during the 1988 devastation by Hurricane Gilbert, Dominica in 2017 when Hurricane Maria destroyed more than 90 per cent of the island structures, Grenada in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan caused widespread destruction, and The Bahamas after it was bit by Dorian in 2019.
“Through CARICOM, we have always helped each other. In Jamaica in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert affected everybody and we got help from all the Caribbean islands and all over the world. The Salvation Army was central to the assistance programme that time. I have no doubt the Caribbean will come together and help St Vincent and the Grenadines, too,” he told The Sunday Gleaner from Barbados last Thursday.
“Shortly after the eruption, Barbados was blanketed in dust. That affected air quality and there was eeriness a few days ago when the sun was barely visible as the dust was so heavy that street lights remained on during the day because of poor visibility,” he said.
Devonish and Dr Glenda Gay also did a needs-assessment survey of the Barbadian situation and found that the most common complaints were health-related and included eye and throat irritation, along with coughing and increased anxiety.
Caribbean no stranger to disasters
When the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted in 2010 in Montserrat, it forever altered the topography of the tiny island tucked away in the northern corner of the Eastern Caribbean.
About 70 per cent of the 10,000 population left after the eruption. Last year, the population count showed 4,992 and among them currently were Jamaicans, Dominicans, Guyanese, and Vincentians.
Herman Sergeant is the station manager at Radio Montserrat. Last week, he told The Sunday Gleaner that he “understand perfectly what Vincentians are feeling”.
“Understandably, there will be a lot of fear in the immediacy of the eruption and things appear hopeless, but you have to hang in there. You cannot tell at this stage how things are going to work out, but the Caribbean people are the most resilient that I know. We proved that with our eruption and we are a much smaller island than St Vincent,” he recalled.
He told The Sunday Gleaner that Montserratians were all crammed into one-third of the island, which was considered safe at the time. That necessitated off-island evacuations and other territories took his countrymen.
“Food shortage was an issue for us at the time, but the people of the Windward Islands sent boatloads of food. So help is coming,” he said to Vincentians.
He recalled the putrid smell of the gasses, much like burning plastic, though not as overpowering. He also recalled the smell of ash.
Eruptions continued for years up to 2010.
“It will never ever be normal for us again. People were uprooted from their homes, villages were destroyed. They lost their properties, jobs, animals and some families. We had 19 people dead, but life goes on. We are living here. Tourists do come, before the COVID-19 at least, and we lead ‘normal’ lives since the volcano settled down,” Sergeant said.
Jamaica’s Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett said despite the susceptibility of the region to natural disasters, the Caribbean remains a favourite, especially for tourists from North America and Europe.
Geographically, he said, the islands are among the most beautiful vacation spots in the world, with exquisite beaches and a cultural experience which forms part of the their natural allure. Though all have been negatively impacted by natural disasters in the last half-century with devastating human and economic cost, still the visitors come, over and over again.
“The region is exceptionally beautiful and the experience is second to none,” Bartlett told The Sunday Gleaner. “And in islands like Jamaica, we stand out in a crowd in the whole world. There is nowhere else like Jamaica, and no experience like the Jamaican tourist experience.”
Bartlett was speaking with our news team last Wednesday, following a meeting of chief executives from around the world and the head of the World Travel and Tourism Council.
“There is no indication when the eruptions will stop. The 1902 eruption lasted eight months and 1979 was not as bad. They say this eruption is worse than the 1902 eruption,” Bartlett said.
“We outlined the Caribbean’s vulnerability to natural disasters, and PM Gonsalves fully outlined the nature of the problem they were facing as a result of the eruption. All indicated a commitment to offer support and to develop a mechanism to offer that support. In the end, we agreed that Jamaica would coordinate the global effort to help St Vincent and the Grenadines,” Bartlett said.
Barbados is the clearing house for much of the regional support, he said.
“There is a clear and present danger for the entire Caribbean, not just the islands that are in that archipelago of Grenada, the Grenadines, St Lucia and Barbados. Anything and everything that happens in the space affects the entire region,” said Bartlett.
The tourism minister also pointed out that Jamaica was a volcanic island, evidenced by its hot springs. The Caribbean, and sections of Central and Latin America, he said, was in a “massive fault zone” with some located in the “ring of fire”.
For all the effects of natural disasters, “the entire Caribbean is exceptionally beautiful”, Walcott said.
“The strength and resilience, especially among the women, are among the endearing features of the islands. These are among many things which made it attractive to the outside world. We are a God-fearing region, and these make a difference,” he said.
For Jamaica, the 1692 earthquake sunk sections of Port Royal and the 1907 earthquake destroyed sections of Kingston. Until Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, Hurricane Charlie in 1951 was the standard by which devastation was judged in the island. Jamaica has also had several brushes with minor earthquakes since, but nothing which has caused major damage.