Aid workers tell of pervasive ash and destroyed crops in St Vincent where water is ‘like gold’
by Gemma Handy
Local disaster chiefs are continuing to keep a close eye on volcanic activity in St Vincent which yesterday saw more explosive eruptions. And they are reassuring the fellow Caricom nation that Antigua and Barbuda remains ready to house evacuees if the situation intensifies.
Aid workers on the ground in St Vincent told Observer of “terrifying rumbling” from La Soufriere and a colossal toxic cloud hovering ominously above, while contaminated water reservoirs means potable water has become “like gold”.
The country’s highest peak first erupted last Friday, blanketing the island in ash and forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes.
Since then, the 4,000ft volcano has continued to explode, leaving St Vincent’s 111,000 residents under threat from pyroclastic flows and widespread ash.
Yesterday, Vincentian officials were forced to warn people against “playing in the ash”.
“Though ash may fall like snow, it is deadly,” a statement on the National Emergency Management Organisation’s (NEMO) Facebook page said.
Antigua and Barbuda previously offered space at the former Jolly Beach Resort to around 250 Vincentians if needed. So far most have chosen to stay closer to home, flooding into shelters or with family and friends in the island’s safe green zone.
Director of the National Office of Disaster Services (NODS) Philmore Mullin said the offer remains open.
“We will keep the plans in place. If the situation turns for the worse, we may have a request for them to be accepted,” he told Observer.
“The situation on the mountain is very explosive. It is moving to what they call ‘long shaking’ where you have a continuous earthquake for some time – about every two to eight hours.
“Scientists say that is a sign that magma is moving closer to the surface, which could see lava spilling out of the volcano.”
Britnie Turner, CEO of Aerial Recovery Group, said her US-based emergency management firm was among the first to reach the island armed with relief supplies.
“It’s kind of a crazy situation. You have to balance being safe with Covid and allowing aid in as you don’t want to create a double disaster,” she said.
“People are completely out of water; it was treated like gold. So the mood on the ground was pretty desperate; people are definitely nervous.”
Turner’s team witnessed an eruption on Monday.
“It was very scary to watch; it looked like a massive bomb going off. It was terrifying, with the earth just shaking around us,” she continued.
The Caribbean is no stranger to natural disasters, having experienced a number of major hurricanes in recent years, but volcanic eruptions are rarer, complicating relief efforts.
“The houses are still standing and beautiful, the trees are still there and beautiful, but there’s this giant toxic cloud,” Turner explained.
“There’s so much unknown, so much volatility, that it brings a whole different level of stress to the local community.
“It’s not like a hurricane came and left; you don’t know if this is going to last a day, a week, or years.”
Vincentian soca star Gamal Doyle – aka Skinny Fabulous – has also been lending a hand to his compatriots by donating packages of essential supplies.
The ‘Watch Thing’ singer has been appealing for contributions from the international community.
“This is not a one-week situation,” he said. “Long after the volcano stops erupting, we will be feeling its ripple effects.”
Yesterday, ash continued to affect neighbouring islands including Barbados and St Lucia, while sulphur dioxide from the volcano has been detected by satellites as far away as western Africa.
Scientists had been warning of an eruption at La Soufriere for several months. An eruption of similar magnitude in 1902 killed almost 1,600 people. La Soufriere last exploded in April 1979.