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Reflection on the aftermath of Soufriere 1979


NBC Radio must be complimented for the initiative to organize last Sunday’s radio discussion on the volcanic eruption of La Soufriere on April 13, 1979. It was an opportunity for reflection, for informing those too young to know or remember, as well as to examine our state of preparedness for such eventualities.{{more}}

In light of the occasion, I too, would like to use this column to look at some of the issues arising from that calamity. In this, I wish to draw heavily on coverage by a weekly paper that I edited then, called FREEDOM, the organ of a political organization to which I belonged, YULIMO.

Following the eruption of the volcano on that fateful Good Friday, April 13,1979, the leadership of YULIMO met to discuss the crisis, probably the only political leadership to do so right after the eruption, not counting Cabinet, but referring to political party leadership. Out of those discussions, YULIMO issued what was to be the first of several statements on the crisis. This first one was entitled “National Crisis demands National Unity, National Effort”. In it YULIMO revealed the level of maturity and responsibility which belied the youthful nature of its leaders at the time.

First of all, it characterized the crisis created by the eruption as not just being NATIONAL but, because of it, requiring NATIONAL UNITY and NATIONAL EFFORT. That approach set it apart from the other organized political forces of the day. On the one hand, the governing party did not make sufficient effort to draw on the wide range of human resources available, whether through political or social organizations. On the other hand, some opposition forces could not see the merit in rising above narrow partisanship, and ended up trying to score cheap political points and to undermine national efforts.

The YULIMO statement drew attention to the failure of the government of the day to invite broad representation in the Central Emergency Relief Committee (CERC), set up to manage the crisis. To quote from the statement:

“At this time, it is vital and in the national interest, that all persons with organizational skills, irrespective of class, creed, political affiliation or ideology, be mobilized to place these skills at the service of their country”.

The statement was not just critical of the limited approach of the authorities. It praised the CERC “for the prompt manner in which the evacuation, (of those areas affected by the volcano), was carried out”. In spite of the restricted nature of the crisis management body, YULIMO still appealed to all organizations to volunteer their services to the national effort.

“It is THE DUTY of all to work tirelessly so that the nation can overcome this crisis with our heads held high”.

Concrete proposals were put forward to help to improve the management of the crisis, such as:

(1) Ensuring that every evacuation centre was staffed by at least one nurse, and equipped with medical supplies, a vehicle with a stationed driver and a telephone. (The statement had called on Cable and Wireless to install a phone in each centre).

(2) Strict control over the distribution of supplies. This was to become a major social and political issue, giving rise to the term “bodow”, a pun on the loud explosion of the volcano, and causing major scandals.

The attitude of YULIMO contrasted sharply with that of the major political parties and revealed the high level of responsibility of its leadership. The patriotism displayed was commendable, especially in the face of the greed and selfishness manifested by some in the CERC, in the leadership of opposition parties and by elements in the business community. This prompted YULIMO to make a call for strong action, HEAVY MANNERS, for:

– “those politicians who go around spreading cheap propaganda and lies merely to discredit the government and to win cheap political support”; “those merchants who have suddenly jacked up prices and are attempting to make as much profit as possible out of the situation”; “those who are using the present situation to rip-off and steal including those who were journeying to the north of the island to steal livestock of evacuees; those especially in the Kingstown area who interrupt the functioning of the evacuation camps, terrorize the people or steal items at such camps.”

We have come a long way since 1979, but there are valuable lessons we can still learn from those experiences.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.