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Trying to make sense of what is happening

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In the weeks before Soufriere began its explosive eruption the main issues being discussed nationally had to do with
vaccination and questioning the measures  in place to ensure the safe reopening of schools on April 12. In its March 26 issue, the Searchlight newspaper, quoted Professor Richard Robertson, the leading scientist on the ground for the UWI Seismic Research Centre, to the effect that “I don’t think that I would say that people have to be anymore alarmed other than being alarmed because you have an erupting volcano, that should have been alarming enough . . . “ He went on to say that people who live in the red and orange zones “ . . .should have plans in place. They should really know what they might have to do if they have to move, because that’s a real possibility. It has always been a real possibility.” Then on Thursday 8 April,  the PM finally indicated that he was issuing an Evacuation Order for the Red Zone.  We were told that plans were in place to deal with an evacuation and that this had been discussed with people in the Red Zone. I felt puzzled by this because an eruption affects the whole country, not only people in the Red or Orange Zones, so we all needed to know about those plans.

As some one in the green zone, I was totally ignorant of those plans.  Then I saw notices about where people from different areas were to be relocated and where they were to meet to be picked up to be taken to the shelters. Then the name NEMO rang loud and clear. I wondered how organised NEMO was to deal with the task it was given. It is only recently I saw a comment by the Head of NEMO indicating that NEMO was not the staff at the Centre but that different ministries had responsibilities which came under the NEMO umbrella. So, any inadequacies anywhere should not simply be dumped on NEMO. In fact, I wondered about NEMO because that organisation was the body given the responsibility to provide information related to COVID. I was never sure why this was given to it rather than the Ministry of Health. I assumed NEMO was adequately staffed with the necessary expertise required.

One of my concerns about the plans that we were told were discussed with persons to be evacuated was that in the event of a volcanic eruption people do not necessarily act in a calm and rational manner. Furthermore, all things have to be like ‘clock- work’. When it is time to evacuate, persons are not necessarily going to be waiting at a spot hoping that transportation would arrive at the time indicated. It beats me that with at least a day’s call for evacuation people were still up to midnight on Friday being evacuated, and in fact the following day. Then there was the issue of vaccination where mixed signals were sent. Some people were told that they could not enter the Shelters until they were vaccinated. Later this was denied.
I had always been concerned about evacuation at the time of a pandemic and our approach to vaccination. What was needed were town hall/community meetings with persons who could communicate with the people. Give them an opportunity to ask questions and answer them truthfully. While doing that we have to bear in mind that we live in an era when most of our news comes through social media and where there is a lot of false information being peddled, sometimes deliberately.

Communication from the authorities was therefore key but should be in a manner that was simple and informative. But the context in which this operates must also be understood because more than ever there is tremendous distrust of any information coming from so-called authoritative sources.

Moreover, we live in a country that is politically divided and every effort should have been made to have the coordinating body include representatives of different organisations, service clubs, ngos, political organisations and individuals who might have a contribution to make because of their experiences and skills. This was not done, even though eventually some volunteered their services. A number of persons manning things were political operatives,  without the particular skills that were needed. At the moment there is still little unity of purpose with Trying to make sense of what is happeningdifferent organisations and people doing their own thing independent of any clearly spelt out national plans. The international community is assisting tremendously, no doubt driven by the harrowing images courtesy social media. As people begin to clean up their districts and those nerve-racking scenes disappear eyes will begin to focus elsewhere. We seem to be in a position, with regional and international help, to meet present needs, but the real test will come with the rebuilding. This should not await a signal from the volcanologists that it was safe to go back whenever that comes, but a planning committee needs to begin looking ahead. It should not necessarily be manned by people taken up with providing for the current needs of the evacuated.

Do we ever learn? I would have thought that we would have digested the experiences which came out of the 1979 eruption. This seems not to be so. We are a few weeks away from the start of the hurricane season. This must be factored into how we think of the way forward.  Hurricanes and eruptions are natural disasters, but they are different beasts which demand different mindsets.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian