Dr. Fraser- Point of View
April 27, 2012
Friday, April 13, 1979 – Some Reflections

Friday, April 13 would have brought back not so fond memories to many Vincentians. It was thirty-three years ago, Friday, April 13 that Vincentians were greeted with the news that the Soufriere volcano was in a state of eruption. We had lived all our lives knowing that the volcano had erupted previously in 1902. That was a long time ago and we felt that it had permanently gone to sleep. No one had prepared us for the reality of living with a volcano.{{more}} So, the Vincentian population was in a state of shock, not knowing how to react, what to believe and what to do. I mention not knowing what to believe, for there were all sorts of fancy tales floating around. The volcano was said to be too big for the country and the possibility existed that the country could be split in two. Suddenly we began to hear about the existence of old craters in some of the communities, some of which could possibly erupt. One area spoken about was the Mesopotamia valley. The geography we did in schools had to do with other countries, not with our own. We knew nothing about a volcano that was perched to the very north of our country, perhaps protecting us from evil spirits.

I had left my teaching job and was working in Barrouallie on a project run by the Caribbean Conference of Churches and the St Vincent and the Grenadines Christian Council. The project involved organizing the transfer of Anglican Church lands/Glebe lands at the Glebe in Barrouallie into the hands of the persons who had been living on those lands for years. Let me just break this for a while to make the point that when I took up the job the feeling within the ruling Labour Party at that time was that I was in the process of organizing myself to be a candidate for the Opposition party in the next election. We really haven’t advanced where these things are concerned – the sense of community spiritedness and wanting to make a contribution to the area where I was born never featured in their thinking.

But so much for that. I was living at Peters Hope on the outskirts of Barrouallie, at the only residential house existing then. I got up on the morning of Friday the 13th and turned on my radio, only to hear Don Bobb, I believe, talking about the eruption of the Soufriere. My immediate response was to ask why the guys at the radio station couldn’t be serious for once. I turned off the radio and then went over to Barrouallie. There was then no need to question what I had heard. The Playing Field in Barrouallie was packed with people who had moved from North Leeward seeking shelter from the erupting volcano. I stayed around for a while and went to the areas where they had begun to organize shelters. There was, apart from this, no sign of an eruption, so later in the day I returned to Peters Hope and took a nap. I got up sometime after six that afternoon and while putting my feet on the

floor, realized that I was standing in ash. This thing was getting serious! I got into my car to go over to Barrouallie and in total ignorance attempted to turn on my wipers. That was the end of any effort to get to Barrouallie.

Next day, I had that matter sorted out and went over to Barrouallie, where I visited one of the centres located at the Anglican Primary School. The first bit of news I had was very funny and I welcomed it. The person in charge of the Centre said that all night the guys who were staying at that shelter were going into the yard and drinking water.

The next morning he realized that the old rum casks that had held the water were empty. During the night, the first person who went for water could not believe what he was seeing, or rather tasting. The rum casks had not been properly washed and he was tasting more rum than water. In fact it was a perfect mix, so he told his other friends and they were happy to drink water all night. I was later informed of another development. Many of the persons who came to Barrouallie were fishermen from North Leeward. Before 6 p.m. on Friday, all the rum shops in Barrouallie had run out of rum. Talk of Soufriere!

I assisted at some of the Shelters and even took a ride with the Grammar School Cadets to Rose Hall, where I saw the tank in which the vulcanologists were expected to shelter in the event of an eruption while they were in the area. That alone was scary enough. I was, however, never for a moment frightened, because I calculated that the high mountains would not have facilitated the flow of lava to Barrouallie and Kingstown, although there was a lot of ash around. We were advised to wear masks and to boil our drinking water. Panic had, however, set in for a number of persons who were trying to leave the country. Some even sought refuge in the Grenadines, seeing those islands as a safer bet than remaining on the mainland. We had heard little from the Premier and when he appeared on radio, some persons took that as a sign that things were going out of control. Most of the eruptions were during daylight and the first night eruption, which prompted Premier Cato’s address, resulted in tons of people moving to the airport, trying to get out at any cost. (To be continued)

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Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.