Richard Robertson
May 7, 2021
Red zone still restricted even with lower alert level

While the go ahead has been given to residents of communities in the Orange zone to return home, access to the Red zone remains restricted due to the dangerous threat of lahars.

Because this threat may continue for some time, scientists have advised that certain measures be put in place to safeguard lives, livelihoods and property of persons who occupy the Red zone.

“The best protection is to stay out of the valleys, don’t put any kind of major assets in it because of the fact that, in the case of St Vincent, it’s going to happen so fast that it’s difficult to provide a warning,” geologist, Professor Richard Robertson said on Wednesday during VC3’s Round Table Talk programme.

Robertson said “your warning would essentially be that you’re either hearing or seeing the stuff come towards you so it means that you really, if there’s any indication of something coming down that valley, you just simply have to get out of that valley and secondly, you have to make sure you don’t have something in it like a house for example or farm lands which will cause you to have to go there regularly and stay there and not focus on the fact that you could get knocked out by a lahar”.

The last explosion at La Soufriere took place on April 22. Cabinet made the decision this week to lower the volcano hazard alert level from Red to Orange.

Since the reduced seismic activity, persons have also been asking when would it be safe to move from emergency shelters and in some cases, reoccupy their homes or begin rebuilding efforts in Red zone areas.

Montgomery Daniel, the parliamentary representative for North Windward said on NBC radio on April 30 that dozens of homes near rivers in the Sandy Bay area have been lost as a result of volcanic hazards.

During that same radio programme last Friday, Robertson advised Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves on the possible way forward for dealing with lahars in those areas.

The scientist said it was important that government agencies and those responsible for planning to be forceful in their advice to persons who may put themselves in harm’s way by trying to build in the valleys below the volcano.
He added that there should be a proactive strategy where prepositioned assets and material are in place to facilitate the clearing away process.

Another suggestion was that a “lahar-ready” programme be implemented to  help persons in the communities better understand the hazard so they are ready in the event of lahars taking place following heavy rains.

“They might’ve gotten away with it in the past because you don’t have too much floods or you don’t have too much water passing through, but given what the volcano has done, you’re going to have for the foreseeable future that anytime you have rain – in fact, even times when you don’t have rain because as Montgomery just confirmed, kind of what we see from our field observations, this volcano has a way in which it could store water and get the water down the valley without having too much rain,” Robertson said.

“So, it means that ongoing for the next couple months and years that if you live anywhere in the valley or anywhere on the slopes of the valley, you are going to have your house and anything you have in there mash up when the river comes down. It’s going to come down with big boulders, it’s going to come down with tree stumps…”

Roderick Stewart, a volcanologist with the UWI Seismic Research team monitoring the volcano also gave some insight on the topic, noting that Montserratians have been living with lahars for more than a decade.

He explained that there was one community that gets cut off for at least one day if a lahar takes place.

“…So people in that community always have preparedness. They have food and water, they have power generators, stuff like that so they can get through that one day while they’re cut off. Similarly, we have the bulldozer, the excavators are positioned next to the major crossings and they can get them open within a few hours sometimes but we’ve been living with them and it makes life a lot easier if you’ve made all these preparations in advance,” Stewart said.

Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, who was also a part of last Friday’s programme, said there is usually equipment stationed permanently at Rabacca which could be used in instances like these.

That equipment has however been relocated to Langley Park due to the threat posed by the Rabacca river at this time.
He said there is also “equipment stationed at various points but obviously it’s something which the basis of the advice you giving, we need to strengthen and some of the matters which you raised too…in relation to people in vulnerable areas, trying always to see if they can keep a couple of days of food, just in case something was to happen”.