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Learning from our Soufriere experiences

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We have a long weekend, the traditional Easter weekend before us, with time for religious activities, sporting and other recreational engagements, but also time, if we make it, for reflection.
Immediately preceding Easter was the 40th anniversary of the volcanic eruption of La Soufriere in 1979, and, coincidentally following Easter, there are the anniversaries of the two most deadly eruptions of the volcano. Next Saturday, April 27, will be the 207th anniversary of the 1812 eruption in which an estimated 80 persons died, while on May 7, 1902, La Soufriere erupted massively with a death toll of over 1,600 people. What have we learnt collectively from these experiences?

I am not a historian, but I tend to look at historical events not just as events in themselves, but from trying to arrive at an understanding of the context and above all to try and learn from them, to draw lessons so as to be guided in the future. Natural disasters are events which, by virtue of their effect on life on the planet, ought to be the cause for such serious reflection, analysis and learning.

It is therefore heartening to note the month of activities being organised by the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO). Approximately 60 percent of our current population was either not born when Soufriere last belched violently or were too young to have vivid memories, and in addition, while noted geologist and volcanologist Dr Richard Robertson never ceases to educate us on such matters, the reality is that too many people listen only when immediately threatened.

It is only to be expected that while the month-long NEMO activities will primarily focus on the lessons learnt in disaster preparedness, the management of such events and related social issues, there are other wider, economic, political and social issues that arose which have had great bearing on our future and from which we can glean a lot, if we so choose.

The eruption of April 13 brought out both the best and worst of the Vincentian people. The humanitarian response of the Vincentian population to the plight of the displaced people was by and large, a magnificent one. Faced with the first wave of some 10,000 displaced persons fleeing literally from fire and brimstone, Vincentians demonstrated that hospitality for which we have traditionally won acclaim.

Whether as volunteers in the hurriedly organised disaster shelters, mainly schools, churches and community centres, or taking the displaced in their homes, succour was provided to the unfortunate. Civil society organisations of all types, and private individuals gave of their time and effort in our national hour of need and crisis. It must be considered that the means of communication was very limited at the time and public and private access to transportation far removed from that of today.

The Central Emergency Relief Committee (CERC), NEMO’s predecessor, was light years removed from the NEMO of today and relied on the personal sacrifice of volunteers, sacrifice which was not always appreciated nationally. But, with all its limitations, it soldiered on and provided valuable service to those affected.

All was not “bright and beautiful” though, and negatives emerged. As happens in any disaster, while all were affected, the very nature of class society determines that those at the “bottom” of the society – the poor, the dispossessed, the elderly indigent, children of the rural poor – were most affected. In addition to being forced to flee, not just their homes, but entire communities for the uncertainties of life in a “camp”, there was the helplessness of lacking the means to fend for themselves and being completely dependent on others.

Since the volcano is situated in the north of the island, looking over the agricultural belt, poor farmers and the then large group of agricultural workers and their families were worst affected.

Besides losing their personal belongings, having had to flee at short notice, they lost crops and livestock, so essential to their survival. Heartless predators, some it is alleged from a neighbouring island, preyed on the vulnerability of the displaced, stealing what had been forcibly abandoned.

But there were other challenges as well. The ravages of the British colonialists and planter class had deprived most of the people in the northern half of the country of the means of independently taking care of their families. Discrimination against poor rural folk was rife and emerged in the paternalistic way in which they were treated in the relief shelters, called “camps” then.

Chatoyer’s people, the Kalinago and Garifuna, living in the foothills of the volcano, felt the brunt. Even before this, men in particular took sexual advantage of the people we called “Caribs” and that continued in the camps. Even persons in charge of the shelters and in the CERC itself, deprived the hapless refugees of certain types of supplies, claiming that they were “not accustomed to” certain types of food items and other supplies.

We have come a long way since then, but it would be a mistake to believe that such unfortunate class attitudes have disappeared. They were among the challenges of the time.

NEXT WEEK: THE POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CHALLENGES

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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