Last weekend we recalled the bitter experiences of the latest violent eruption of our La Soufriere volcano on April 9, 2021.
By sheer coincidence, or so we hope, this eruption, date-wise almost mirrored the preceding eruption of 42 years earlier, in 1979. It provided us with the opportunity to reflect not just on the 2021 eruption but on those which preceded it in the 20th century, of which there were three.
It is difficult, almost impossible, for the younger ones to imagine what happened then. Our volcanologists can apprise us of what the eruptive experience was like, but given the limitations of the time, the human experience is difficult to relive. Take the 1902 eruption for instance, what horror that must have brought in its wake!
In the first place, there would have been the gross ignorance of volcanic eruptions in that early post-slavery society. Then there would have been the lack of infrastructural and transport facilities to accommodate evacuation and temporary resettlement. Where were the shelters in those days? The neglect of the colonial authorities had left us with very few schools, never mind community centres, and as for churches, those in communities were inadequately equipped to deal with the situation. There was as well the abject poverty of those most affected.
The eruptions of 1971 and 1979 were overshadowed by the continuing negative attitudes towards the people most affected, the so-called “Caribs” in particular. With no NEMO and a Committee largely dominated by persons with partisan political connections, differing from that of the people with whose welfare they were given responsibility, that exercise was a far cry from that of 2021. In addition, it must not be forgotten, that general elections came months after the volcanic eruptions. We have to lift ourselves above partisan considerations in times of national disaster.
For all these reasons, 2021 provided a stark contrast. Yet as a nation, it is unclear to what extent we fully appreciate the arrangements made to deal with the aftermath of the 2021 eruption. It was almost like dealing with unchartered territory. Of course, in retrospect there were weaknesses and shortcomings, at both administrative and governmental levels, but just to undertake the tasks of relief, recovery and resilience, while coping with the everyday needs of the thousands affected was a herculean task, largely well-performed.
If there is one major deficiency to emerge from the latest Soufriere experience is the worrying lack of sufficient appreciation for the efforts needed to undertake and sustain humongous tasks. One got a sense of “entitlement” on the part of too many of those affected to the extent that the more the government seemed to bend over backwards, the greater the demands.
It was as if the tremendous efforts of volunteers, the resource limitations of government and the reality of our situation in a global context did not exist. We are extremely fortunate to have experienced three volcanic eruptions in a half century without a single fatality and though the numbers affected are considerable in our case, they pale into significance internationally.
The level of public education and consciousness must become a priority as we prepare for the future and in building our resilience.