(Excerpts of Dr. Friday’s Press Statement)
The Eruption of La Soufriere
The explosive eruption of La Soufrière which began on the morning of Friday, April 9, 2021, has brought physical destruction, dislocation of our people, and great uncertainty into our lives. I have seen the effects first-hand; in communities in the north, e.g. Sandy Bay in North Windward and Chateaubelair on the Leeward side.
The eruption of La Soufrière has turned our already struggling country upside down. Approximately 14,000 people have been displaced from their homes to avoid the dangers of the explosive eruptions. They have left their houses, their livestock, and their familiar surroundings behind in North Windward and North Leeward, and have accepted temporary shelter with one another in schools, Learning Resource Centres, church halls and in the homes of friends and relatives in the safe zones.
This is a very anxious and difficult time for them. They must adjust to new living conditions in a communal setting in shelters or in sometimes crowded spaces in private homes. Some have rented accommodations not knowing how they will afford them if the evacuation continues for much longer, as it clearly will. In some of those accommodations, many still lack basic things—beds, regular food supplies, clothing, etc. that might make them comfortable and give them some peace of mind.
Having been away from them for nearly 3 weeks now, they worry increasingly about the state of their homes and other property. The natural urge to go to see how they are and even to begin to clean up grows daily, but for personal safety must be suppressed. Having left their household and farm animals behind, they worry about them. Are their animals being fed? Have their livestock fallen prey to dogs that in the absence of their owners fend for themselves by killing sheep, pigs, and goats for food? Why were these animals not removed to safety before the eruption as the owners and the rest of us were told would have been done or as otherwise planned?
There is great distrust of government throughout the country and in our diaspora. It has revealed itself in many ways: notably in the last election when more people voted for the NDP than for the party that is in government; in the clear reluctance among our people to take the COVID- 19 vaccine despite its obvious utility and the eventual urgings, enticements, and even threats of representatives of the government; the concern expressed by many about the use or misuse of resources collected by government for volcano eruption relief.
I have heard many complaints and reports about the failure to provide foodstuff and beds for evacuees. Nearly three weeks after their evacuation, they still have not received food packages from NEMO and rely on private contributions. This situation is unacceptable and must be remedied without further delay. Thankfully, many private donors have filled the gaps and I urge them to continue to help.
There are reports also of political partisanship being used to distribute aid to volcano victims. That is to say, persons who are known to be NDP supporter have been overlooked or delayed in getting assistance while ULP supporters have received aid.
Given our recent history in which such was the case in giving out flood and hurricane relief, these reports must be taken seriously and must be investigated fully. Where they are found to be well-founded, steps must be taken to remove persons causing the problem and to ensure equity and transparency in the dispensing of aid.
This is not a party matter or party resources. The aid is donated by governments, regional and international organizations, local businesses and charities, and numerous individuals. It is given to help the people most affected by the volcano disaster and must be distributed only on the basis of need. No partisan consideration must be permitted to determine who get and when they get.
We must be committed to rebuilding when the volcano returns to rest and it is safe again to return to the danger areas. Having seen the devastation in the communities closest to the volcano, it is clear to me that, even if there were no more explosive eruptions, it will take a long time to remove the ash, fix broken roofs and return people to their homes.
Many of the people I have spoken with are hopeful for better but nevertheless seem to accept this fate. It is not too early to start to think about how we move forward in the short and medium term. There are effective measures that can be put in place right now to help our people from the evacuated areas in the North, to cope with the economic effects of the eruptions. VINLEC and CWSA have said they will suspend bills in communities in the worst hit areas. I want to urge them to go further and cancel bills for homeowners and businesses in the communities in the danger zone.
Give locals the clean-up jobs: When the time comes to safely clean up the affected areas, we must ensure that local villagers/contractors are given the jobs to remove the ash and repair damage to public property. Pay them with the recovery money or other funds designated for disaster relief and the rebuilding of the affected areas. This will give jobs to people who have lost their livelihood as a result of the eruption and also as a result of the extended COVID-19 crisis.
We recognize that this disaster, as is generally the case with such events, brings not only destruction but also opportunities. (Behind every dark cloud there is a silver lining). There needs to be a national task force to plan reconstruction and recovery. This is a national project. It must be broad-based and inclusive. Rebuilding must be guided by principles that promote resilience and sustainability. Also, a comprehensive environmental assessment must be done to assess damage to habitats, animal, and fauna.