La Soufriere volcano – 40th anniversary of 1979 eruption
FORTY YEARS ago tomorrow (April 13), our La Soufriere volcano began a series of violent eruptions which turned out to be the most damaging we had experienced for almost eight decades. Over the course of the next few months these were to cause major social and economic dislocations in St Vincent and the Grenadines with significant political repercussions as well. Fortunately for our people, the human death toll was minimized.
In more ways than one, the eruptions of La Soufriere helped to shape the future of our country. Indeed, the year 1979, now recognized internationally as the year of the overthrow of many tyrannical regimes, was a momentous one for St Vincent and the Grenadines.
For the first time since its official organisation as a national festival, Carnival celebrations had to be cancelled, given the disruptive effect of the volcanic eruptions. Educational activities were impacted negatively since many schools had to be used as emergency shelters for those forced to flee their homes in the northern parts of St Vincent. Agriculture in particular took a big hit with the destruction of crops, not just in the most-affected northern areas, but throughout the island.
However it was in the political arena where the longest-lasting effects were to be felt. St Vincent and the Grenadines had already embarked on the road towards formally
becoming an independent nation when the volcano exploded. The eruption undoubtedly affected the political process, especially the national conversation about a new constitution and severely limited the already limited space for people’s participation in the process.
In spite of this and the political turmoil of the times, with the impending end of the five-year term of the then Labour party government, Premier Milton Cato continued the thrust towards independence which was formally achieved on October 27, 1979 and then used the political capital thus gained to propel his party towards victory in the contentious first post-Independence general elections.
The volcanic eruptions cast their shadows on all of these activities. They ensured that 1979 would forever be etched in the memory of the people of our country. It is therefore heartening that the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) is organising a month of activities to commemorate the 40th anniversary. Like many other historic events, the eruption of La Soufriere has not been given the attention it deserves, not sufficiently ingrained in the national consciousness.
The emphasis of NEMO on community preparedness and public education is certainly most welcome and while there is only one public exhibition scheduled, we encourage as many persons as possible, the post-1979 generation in particular to take
advantage of it. Other countries which have experienced the ravages of volcanic eruptions, Martinique being an example, have ensured that exhibits from their 1902 eruption, incidentally the same year when La Soufriere had one of its most destructive eruptions, have kept the memories of those momentous events alive. We have not been so proactive in that regard.
It is also vitally important that we seek to continue to learn from our 1979 experiences, especially where management of national crises are concerned. In 1979 we had no NEMO, having only a Central Emergency Relief Committee (CERC). Its volunteers, in difficult circumstances and limited facilities, worked hard in the relief efforts.
However there were many shortcomings from which we can, and should learn. Today, with the advent of climate change, much of the emphasis is in dealing with the effects of hurricanes, storms and flooding. But we must not forget the volcano in our midst or its potential for destruction. The 40th anniversary is a golden opportunity which should not be missed.