On the afternoon of April 8, 2021 at approximately 4:30 pm, Prime Minister Dr Hon Ralph Gonsalves, on the expert advice of Professor Richard Robertson, issued an evacuation order to all residents in the designated “red zone” areas on mainland Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
This was in direct response to the information given by Professor Robertson and his team to the National Emergency Committee chaired by the Comrade Ralph in his capacity as Prime Minister, (that) an explosive eruption of the La Soufriere volcano was imminent. This announcement began the complicated and involved process of the evacuation of approximately 20,000 citizens and residents from the north western and north eastern communities in the red zone. The following day, Friday April 9, 2021 as Vincentians waited with anxious expectations, just as predicted, the La Soufriere volcano erupted explosively throwing a large plume of ash that went miles into the air that could be seen from almost anywhere in this country. Over the weeks and months immediately following the eruptions, the government of this country, supported by the local private sector, regional governments and agencies, international organisations and members of the international community was involved in a clean-up and recovery effort unlike anything ever before undertaken in the history of this country. The impacts of the eruption went beyond the displacement of residents, but also saw significant damage to infrastructure, personal property, agriculture, including livestock and forestry. The task of rebuilding would be challenging but the government moved swiftly to make resources available to begin the work of putting this country on the path to full recovery.
Income support, repair and recovery
Reflecting on the manner in which our Comrade Ralph-led ULP government managed the various challenges that emerged following the eruption of La Soufriere that essentially compounded this country’s already challenging situation in the midst of the pandemic, we admit that it was made to look all too easy. The government was able to access resources immediately from the contingencies fund (a measure opposed by the opposition NDP) to support displaced individuals in shelters and private homes through meals while the support from the UN agencies and other partners was being coordinated. The massive clean-up operations conducted by BRAGSA that restored access across within a relatively short period of time was remarkable. This allowed for assessors to proceed into the red zone to assess the level of damage done from ash fall and lahar flow but also paved the way for the eventual return of temporarily displaced residents to their home communities. The assessment revealed millions of dollars in damage to physical infrastructure, hundreds of homes damaged or destroyed and the need for relocation of some residents whose houses were assessed to be in locations that were dangerous. The damage to crops and livestock along with the heavy ash fall that covered farms created a situation of severe loss to farmers, who had to wait for months before they could be able to plant on their lands. The government went about providing income support for many categories of workers including farmers, vendors at tourism sites, vendors at schools, and fisherfolk to provide a cushion against the loss of income from their usual activities. These payments were in addition to payments made by UN agencies and the Red Cross in partnership with the government directly to families impacted by the volcano. One year later millions of dollars in income support have been paid to families and individuals and the work of repairing homes damaged is going at full pace.
A time of respair
As we go around the country, the recovery effort following the eruption of La Soufriere, will make you marvel and is a testament to the hard work of the clean-up and construction crews from BRAGSA and the Ministry of Housing working together. Most of the individuals displaced have been back in their home communities since August 2021 with few infamies still in guest houses and some temporary shelters because of extensive damage to their homes making them uninhabitable. The ongoing repair work while significant and facing challenges of acute shortages of materials and increased cost of materials when they are available and even a shortage of contractors to do the work, is progressing well with all of the level 1 and level 2 damaged homes complete and work now being done on level 3 and 4 houses. Twenty-four houses in Orange Hill are close to being handed over and another set of houses set for construction in partnership with the Mustique Company soon. With all the work being done, and with significant improvement in the infection rate and active cases of Covid-19, the residents of our country can claim a fresh hope for tomorrow. Having been the recipients of the bounties of God, provided through the leadership of this country and the proper allocation of resources to enable this recovery, we can reflect on the goodness of God to have brought us through these challenging times. One year later as a people we can reflect on the task that was before us following the volcano and be inspired by the way we worked together, caring for each other and addressing the needs that were the most critical. The work is not yet done, but we serve a merciful God, elected a caring and competent government, committed to serving the best interest of Vincentians and together we will get through this period and come out stronger than before. During this period of respair, a concept that connects the important qualities of faith made manifest through works and love, an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken, we must put our best effort forward and claim morning by morning new mercies we see, great is thy faithfulness.