Dr Ralph Gonsalves cried openly and unashamedly on April 9 when La Soufriere blew its overheated top, presenting a world of challenges for the leader and country of 110,000 people.
One week later as he struggled to describe the immensity of the devastation of the major island in his country of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Gonsalves said last Thursday: “We will build back.”
In an interview with the Sunday Express, the Prime Minister said any questions as to whether and to what extent the island of St Vincent will become unlivable after the La Soufriere eruptions is hyperbolic. “There is not a possibility that it will become unlivable,” he said optimistically.
Borrowing from the late Lloyd Best, Gonsalves said a crisis constituted “a combination of factors in which the people have no options. But where there is a sufficiency of ideas on the way forward, what you have is a challenge. This is no crisis, what you have here is a challenge.”
Repeating assertions he has made since the start of the explosions from the La Soufriere volcano on April 9, he said neither he nor the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines were “people of lamentations”.
Comparing the scale of the destruction wrought this time, with what took place during the last explosions in 1979, he said this series of explosions was bigger, and have put at risk significantly more public and private assets. He said “hundreds of millions of dollars” are required to be spent on physical assets such as schools, clinics, bridges and buildings of one kind or another.
While he didn’t have the numbers to make an exact comparison between the 1979 eruptions and the current one, he said this eruption was bigger than the one then. “The volcanologists say so, but those who lived through it would know that too. It has caused greater disruption, and more private and public assets are at risk,” he said.
The area then, he said, “was not anywhere as developed as it is now, so assets run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The types of houses which have been constructed in the intervening years. The agriculture, the animal husbandry. The entire northern third of the island has become completely desolate”.
Safety net issues
Across the north-east, he said the issue was ash which has covered vast expanses of territory, but the pyroclastic flows across the north-west has caused tremendous damage to vegetation. When it began to ooze, he said there was already a big dome created by the eruptions of 1979.
This represented about 70 to 75 million cubic metres of earthen material. But on this occasion, in just a few short months of this effusive eruption, the 2021 dome which is built with an additional 15 million cubic meters of this material, pushed that load to upwards of 90 million cubic metres of material, “all of which went up into the atmosphere” during the first big explosion on April 9.
Critically, he said, “all of it did not end up in St Vincent. A significant quantity went out to sea, and went to Barbados,” large portions of which became covered with ash. Quantification of the scale of this explosion was far from over, he said, but there has also been significant impact on water systems on the island.
“And then you have big water systems which have been put out of commission because of the ash,” he said, adding that “hundreds of millions of capital assets have been put in jeopardy.” This has led to what he called “significant loss of production”. It rendered significantly vulnerable what he called “survival, safety net issues”.
Volcanic activity of this sort goes on for up to six months, he noted, book-ending this by saying that in 1902 when La Soufriere erupted, related activity went on for a year.
Of course, that killed 16,000 plus people, because there were no warning systems like exist now. “So that we haven’t had anybody dead, is an amazing achievement,” he said.
Gonsalves issued invitations to curious journalists to come see for themselves. When he spoke, he said there were about 4,400 to 4,500 persons in 88 emergency shelters, in addition to the fact that “relatives, friends and strangers” were opening their homes to others in need of such shelter.
“This could be okay for four of five days, but you cannot sustain that kind of thing over several months,” he said, adding that upwards of 6,000 persons were registered with the country’s National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO), with thousands of others still reserved about signing up. Others have gone into guest houses and hotels.
He said up to that point, between 16,000 and 20,000 persons had been evacuated from danger zones.
The state would have to help provide food packages for those private homes which have taken in persons from the “Red and Yellow zones,” among other adjustment arrangements arising from this emergency. He said there were large numbers of persons who would be without jobs, because of what he called “the knock-on effect”.
On the horizon, as well, is the pending hurricane season in about six weeks time. “All you need to get is one, and this situation becomes that much more extremely difficult. The Colorado University people say we are likely to have an abnormal season, with about 17 named storms. We may not get any, but all we need to get is just one, to add to our complications and our challenges,” he said.
On Thursday also, Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro issued an appeal for greater assistance to the government and people of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Gonsalves was asked for his reaction on this, given the strained relations between Almagro and some Caricom leaders, over their differences on the Venezuela question, and Almagro’s handling of it at the OAS.
As is his wont, Gonsalves waxed biblical, saying on the road to Jericho, the heretic will likely pass you by, but the good Samaritan will come to your aid.
“People of all political stripes have good humanitarian instincts nevertheless,” he said, “and where there is disaster, the foundation stone for successful humanitarianism social is uppermost.
“There is also something called social solidarity, and it also has to be made real by ensuring that you handle it in a way that is properly done, so that it does not become frayed and tattered. As well in this age of social media, you ignore all the negatives. It is not that difficult.”
He said also, the challenges of managing the fallout from this natural eruption added to those presented by the Covid-19 restrictions and dislocations.
In the days leading up to the volcano’s eruption, Gonsalves had made a statement to the effect that his government foresaw some difficulty in meeting commitments for wages and salaries in the public service.
Asked to put this in context, given the current situation, he said:
“As few weeks ago, I raised the possibility in light of the economic challenges, including unstable government revenues, that the government may be unable to meet its monthly commitments on time, including salaries. I therefore urged that we all have an obligation during the Covid-19 pandemic, to be tested and vaccinated so as to enable the earliest return to normalcy and the full opening up of the economy for tourism and so forth.
“Clearly the explosive volcanic eruptions add a further layer to the multi-dimensional challenges of health, the economy, the social situation and security. Thus far, we are meeting our commitments, but it is a problematic issue.”