Growing up in one of the villages now classified as a high hazard zone, Chateaubelair (Chateau), on the island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), La Soufriere or known by locals as Soufriere or “Soufray,” was always a towering yet “gentle giant,” majestic and unbothered outside my window. I have since left the island, but hearing about the eruption of Soufriere was a shock to the diaspora but more so to locals. And even if the volcano was your view daily—as it was mine—an eruption was honestly in the fringes of most people’s minds.
After all, decades have passed since it has last shown its strength, erupting last in 1979. However, when it started to erupt effusively back in December of 2020, Vincentians were doubtful that it was going to be explosive.
Well surely, on April 9th, La Soufriere exploded back to life. April 9th, was a day filled with trepidation, because the questions loomed if residents were truly ready, even with a four-month alert, starting with effusive eruptions before it’s big explosion. As I heard of the news, I called my relatives back on the island and as I spoke with the youngest of my aunts, she said “Kishon, I am emotional because it brought back bad memories from 1979.” She reminisced on the fact that they were displaced then, and she knew that this would be the same fate for many residents who were now to be evacuated. Aunty Rudy expressed how grieved she was, seeing the elderly transferred from their homes, knowing that they had to leave their comfortable beds, showers, and kitchens, for makeshift shelters—schools, churches, or community centers—away from the hazard zones to seek refuge, in a location that doesn’t even have adequate cots or beds to house them. Another relative questioned the structural fitness of shelters, the schools particularly, to safely house evacuees. My cousin Catoya pointed out that the schools had metal or wooden window louvers, which are unfit to completely block ash, which has been one of the most dominant substances that is expelled from the volcanic eruptions of La Soufriere.
It’s been a few days now and Aunty Rudy is working along with my organization Young Black Travelers and the United Vincie Cultural Group of Brooklyn as we raise funds for the dislocated residents of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. After a recent phone conversation with her, she expressed how heartbroken she was and indicated that the shelter residents were extremely vulnerable. She pointed out a particular case of an elderly lady crying uncontrollably, without apparent cause, but after assessing the situation, she said it was because the lady was displaced. Aunty Rudy said that she is concerned about the mental impacts the eruption will have on Vincentians. She also pointed out that the staff at her shelter is doing their very best to make residents as comfortable as possible. She also articulated that residents felt deprived since they now have to line up for everything, their most basic freedom of independence has been stripped away as a result of La Soufriere’s eruption. Some are even afraid to ask for their most basic needs because after all, Vincentians are a very independent and hardworking group of people.
Furthermore, the uncertainty of not knowing when it will end—as eruptions are still predicted to persist for weeks and even months—is unsettling. Two of my aunts who reside in New York also reminisce on their experiences from 1979. They tell the story of how the eruptions lasted for months and months. They were away from Chateaubelair for an extended period. Infact, it was the 1979 eruptions that caused the two of them to relocate from Chateau to Campden Park, a safe zone now, as it was also considered then.
However, as the eruptions persist, and we use history and the images we have seen—of villages in the north, that are now enveloped in ash—as a measure and comparison of La Soufriere’s impact, we cannot deny that La Soufriere is a wonder that disrupts. The ash that has fallen is a nuisance that the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the international community will have to remedy, especially since eruptions have negative impacts on both health and the environment. Not forgetting the over twenty thousand residents who have been evacuated and are now living in shelters, just like the one aunty Rudy is stationed. Or even those who chose to double up with relatives. We know that they all have a long road ahead of them. And when this is no longer world news, many of them will be returning to their villages, to uncover houses with collapsed roofs, as well as livestock and agriculture that has been decimated.
Thus, as I keep a watch on SVG and keep hope alive from thousands of miles away. And as I hear from relatives and friends of how dire the situation on the ground is. After seeing pictures of submerged villages. Hearing reports from shelter managers of the state of need, especially water and basic supplies. Hearing from individuals who experienced the 1979 eruption, that SVG is now in an even greater state of emergency than they were then. In this increasingly globalized world, we must bring urgency to global leaders to ensure that they do their part to assure that the small island state of St. Vincent and the Grenadines rebound stronger than before. I must also bring the plea home to the government of the United States to do more. Temporary Protected Status—formally known as TPS—is a remedy. Simply put, St. Vincent is not in the position to accept many of its people, who live and work here without documentation. Simply put, if they return to SVG today, it is almost a guarantee that they will face extremely harsh conditions and possibly cause so many more to struggle even more than they currently are. Simply put, SVG is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, one it could have never seen coming, consequently the reason governments like the US must do as much as they could to help the people in SVG as well as those in the diaspora.
Nevertheless, let’s pray that the day comes soon when Souferier will again return to its state of slumber. And hopefully this time, for decades on end.