St Vincent volcanic eruptions shock Jamaicans living there

NEWS of the expected eruption of La Soufrire volcano in St Vincent and the Grenadines came as a shock to several Jamaicans who settled in the eastern Caribbean island, some more than a decade ago.

Vincentians and foreigners were warned of the pending disaster from as early as October last year, though it had been over 40 years since the volcano last erupted.

None of the Jamaicans knew how to prepare for a natural disaster of that magnitude, having only experienced the passage of hurricanes back home.

“It was crazy, because I have never experienced a volcanic eruption before,” Loretta Burke said when she spoke to the Jamaica Observer via telephone on Friday.

The Jamaican relocated to Georgetown in the north-eastern end of the small island 13 years ago, settling five miles from La Soufriere — the highest point in St Vincent and a popular tourist attraction.

The volcano began an effusive eruption in December last year but only erupted explosively a month ago on April 9, forcing thousands of people, including Burke, out of their homes.

She was located in the red zone – which meant that she and her family were in harm’s way.

“It was frightening just to see all of what was happening. I was very scared, to be honest with you. I didn’t even know they had a volcano and that I was living so close to it. I had to be evacuated from my home because I was living in the red zone. I’m not back home as yet but I’m staying with a family member instead of a shelter. If I had to do that, I would be devastated. The most important stuff I walked with, like my passport,” she said, reminding that St Vincent, like the rest of the world, is grappling with COVID-19.

“I wasn’t worried about the house being damaged or anything because it’s man-made. Things do happen and it can always be fixed. I was worried about the safety of me and my daughter and getting out before anything serious happened,” said Burke, who moved to the southern end of the island in the green zone, which was designated as safe.

This was mere hours before the first major explosion, which was followed by a series of eruptions in the days after.

Plumes of smoke and ash buried half of the island, immediately impacting visibility and water supply.

“It’s crazy to see what happened to my house, with all the ash and stuff, and how badly it damaged it. From hearing that rumble you could tell that it would be bad. I was very scared. What I heard was very frightening but things are getting better and I’m doing okay,” she told the Sunday Observer.

For Glynis Hay Rickards, living through a volcanic eruption was far-fetched. She likened the disaster to a scene from a movie.

“It was one of those things that you see in a movie but never expect in your wildest dreams that it would happen to you. We didn’t know what to expect. I was terrified, I just didn’t know what to expect. I was scared,” said Hay Rickards, who lives in the green zone in Kingstown, the island’s capital city.

The Jamaican has lived there since 2000.

“It [eruption] was like snow coming down. You know your body was covered and everything because I was actually outside. You started to hear the rumbling and see the lightning and the clouds and everything and you just didn’t know what to expect. When I moved here I didn’t even know anything about a volcano. When I became aware of it I realised that it was a recreational site. People would go to the volcano to have fun and come back. I didn’t expect it to show a destructive path.

“We became aware that it would erupt from last year October so, mentally, we were trying to be prepared but physically we couldn’t. How do you prepare for a volcanic eruption? I just didn’t know. So when I woke up the morning of the first explosion the place was just covered in ash. We were buried in it and it was just frightening,” the woman said.

Things have begun to come back together she told the Sunday Observer, but there are fresh concerns about the health of thousands who have had to wade through ash.

Health effects could include respiratory problems, sight issues, and skin irritation with threatening long-term effects which could include silicosis, which is lung fibrosis caused by the inhalation of dust containing silica.

“I am okay. I’ve been on the road every day since the eruptions, handing out relief supplies. Vincentians are such strong people. You come here today and it wouldn’t appear as if we had a volcanic eruption. People have just gone beyond the effects and the ash and just moved on and are putting their lives back together. The only thing is that we have health concerns,” said Hay Rickards.

“We are concerned because of the amount of ash we have been exposed to, even though we wore masks and goggles and tried to cover up as much as possible. But I think we have inhaled a little bit too much ash,” she added.

Maureen Webber went to the island to work on a special project which involved working with disabled people.

She, too, had not toyed with the idea that a Soufrire, which had erupted four times in the past, would strike again.

But when activities intensified at the location the Jamaican said her first thought was to assist people being evacuated from the red zone.

She recalled not being overly perturbed.

Webber lives in Kingstown.

“I started reaching out to people to start looking money for shelters. I always focus on people with disabilities and I immediately thought of the kids in Georgetown where they have a special needs school and how frightened those kids would feel. So, I helped to raise money for that and delivered packages to mothers.

“People ask me, ‘Don’t you regret getting here before the volcano erupted?’ I don’t feel sorry. I know it sounds weird but I don’t regret being here. The hardest thing for me was watching people wait for the next food to drop. A hurricane, we are used to that. It comes and it passes but for the country overall, the hardest thing was after that first week. Is it safe to come out of your home? Where will water come from? And food? So that was hard,” said Webber, who believes that the country will be better prepared for a future eruption.

“The country was shocked for a while but I really believe we can recover. So, I’m not afraid of what is to come or have any regrets about being here. I feel I belong here,” added Webber, who has lived in St Vincent for three years.

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