2021 SVG Volcano Eruption: Impact, Response, Resilience, Recovery & Reconstruction
By Sean Rose
The on going explosive eruption phase of the St. Vincent La Soufriere volcano is expected to impact all aspects of life and livelihoods in St. Vincent and the Grenadines for the foreseeable future.
The earthshaking volcanic activity, which began on April 9th 2021, propelled ash plumes to estimated heights of 65,000ft. The lighter particles have penetrated the earth’s stratosphere according to the United States’ National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). The impact of the eruption has become a global phenomenon.
While Barbadians 120 miles to the east of SVG contend with the heavy ash fall, NASA says “volcanic plumes that reach and linger in the stratosphere can start to exert a cooling influence on global temperatures.” The World Meteorological Organization in a tweet on April 16th said “Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions from La Soufriere had reached all the way to India.”
On home soil, the volcanic events remain a direct threat to communities in the northeast and northwest sections of mainland St Vincent. While the degree of impact vary from one area to the next, heavy ash fall and mudflows have wreaked havoc on residential and public property, wildlife and farm animals along the foothills of the volcano. The forested areas around the volcano have felt the brute force of projectiles, cascading pyroclastic density currents, mudflows and ash deposits a few feet deep in some areas.
The ongoing eruption phase has definitely wreaked havoc; displaced well over 10,000 people, left a trail of economic uncertainty, emotional and psychological pain, including environmental and infrastructural destruction. Meanwhile, the volcano is still erupting. The initial outburst of ash plumes turned day into night on St. Vincent, blanketed the island of Barbados to the east, triggering a one week closure of the Grantley Adams International Airport on that island. On St Vincent extensive cleaning is ongoing at the Argyle International. The airport remains closed but is expected to reopen soon.
Looking through a humanitarian lens the local, regional and international responses have been exemplary. Relief supplies continue to arrive in SVG via the sea ports, helping to soften the impact felt worst by people who are displaced. Consider if you had to live through the weeks and months ahead of sleepless nights, the uncertainty, the frustration, the discomfort and despair, all testing your faith and resilience.
Yet there is a silver lining. By the grace of the almighty God, the profound love and solidarity shown by our Caribbean neighbors, generous governments, organizations, businesses, friends near and far and the Vincentian Diaspora have lifted the spirits of our people from the depths of despair to new heights of patriotism and indefatigability.
Driven by a firm belief in the almighty creator, most Vincentians remain unfazed about the future of our homeland. From the ashes, still we rise. We are defiantly #SVGSTRONG.
Meanwhile, the eruption of La Soufriere is expected to continue for some weeks and months ahead, with undetermined moments of interruption along the way. This outlook is supported by the ongoing informative updates from lead scientist-Vincentian born geologist & volcanologist Professor Richard Robertson, supported by a team of volcano monitoring experts from the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Unit.
Though life threatening, the thunderous, earth shaking fireworks display by La Soufriere offers various benefits during recovery and reconstruction. SVG, like other Caribbean destinations, is highly dependent on visitor arrivals for revenue generation and economic viability. The current phase of explosive volcanic activity has already dwarfed years of promotional campaigns by tourism stakeholders; captured the attention of millions around the world; and may help lure thousands more to our beautiful, multi-island state to surf, hike to the summit of La Soufriere, and enjoy all that our scenic islands have to offer.
The way I see it, the 2021 explosive volcanic experience can be viewed narrowly as a natural disaster, or more broadly as an ongoing island building process, that scientists say began millions of years ago. The seven volcanic peaks lining the mountainous interior of mainland St. Vincent, possibly illustrates a chronological sequence of events being replayed in dramatic fashion during the ongoing 2021 explosive eruption phase.
One theory points that volcanic activity on our island, spanning thousands of millennia, began in the areas of Mount St. Andrew in the southwest of the island. That progression, some say, moved north-northwest to Grand & Petit Bonhomme, Hermitage Mountain, Richmond Peak and Mount Brisbane then to the current epicenter of activities at the active La Soufriere mountain peak, where the now dormant 1812 crater lake is also located.
Moving forward, as we shift through the ashes of time most of us can see greener, even brighter days ahead for SVG. We can continue to count our blessings for having rich volcanic soils. This is, potentially, a plus for heightened agricultural production. The bread basket of the southern Caribbean stands to reap further gains from a multi-pronged agricultural diversification program.
I hold the view that while the volcanic impact may seem unbearable in the short term, the medium to long term benefits will far outweigh the pain and losses we have experienced thus far.
Admittedly, while heavy rainfall will be beneficial to farmers and the overall flora and fauna in the country, water gushing down hillsides where there’s loose soil and little to no forest cover also presents further challenges to water catchment sites. We can anticipate flash floods galloping through rivers and tributaries that have collected significant deposits of ash, sand and debris.
The valleys and streams widened by mudflows during the first two weeks of the eruption could easily swell with flood waters at greater velocity in their approach to the low lying areas. We can’t rule out the possibility of further destructive impacts during and after the current eruption phase.
Moving forward to recovery and reconstruction we have to strengthen our bonds and remain alert to those and other challenges, while we embrace the opportunities.
In the words of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonslaves, the faces of men and women in the country are strained and anxious-in this our midnight hour of need. Dr Gonsalves, being pragmatic as always, says without external support, “recovery and reconstruction would be dismal”.
Displacement is a certainty for people who live along the foothills of the majestic La Soufriere. Had it not been for a largely successful evacuation exercise, there could have been significant loss of life in some communities in the demarcated red and orange zones, where roofs caved in under the weight of heavy ash fall. There is limited record of what transpired during the 1718 eruption in SVG. However, the 1812, 1902 and now 2021 have been destructive. The presence of early warning systems have prevented any loss of life in 1779 and 2021.
As we prepare to embark on the road to recovery & reconstruction we must strike a balance between our admiration for, and adaptation to, the magnificent yet destructive force of nature that is Lady Soufriere. The way I see it, the 2021 explosive eruption phase should inform our development and planning processes for areas in close proximity to the Volcano. There are lessons for communities in the central and southern sections too.
The impact of an evacuation exercise triggered by an eruption of our volcano is never short lived. Historically, when residents of the northeast and west are forced to leave their homes some seek alternative forms of accommodation. Some never return to their homes. Given the impact of the current eruption phase, there is a high possibility several nationals from the north east and west would not return to the places they called home. Houses built in the path of crushing mudflows were flooded with dirt and debris, some even collapsed.
With the 2021 hurricane season just around the corner, we can anticipate further impacts by flash floods on farm lands, road ways, and, in particular, residential property located in low lying areas. The destruction of property along the flanks of La Soufriere during an explosive eruption phase is simply unavoidable. Practically speaking, it’s a question of how widespread that destruction would be at the end of the ongoing eruption cycle.
Finally, we do have some tough decisions to make. It will be challenging for some residents who call the northern communities home. For some it will be too expensive to return. In some cases it may even be impossible to recover, repair and reconstruct on the same site, or even in the same community.
There are areas where roads and bridges were wiped out. Vehicular access would be impossible for sometime to come, or present safety concerns for commuters. Some home homeowners would have to relocate. In some cases relocation would be done voluntarily. However, in anticipation of human behavior, the planning authorities may have to step in and make some tough decisions.
There are difficult hills to climb and valleys to cross on the proverbial road to recovery and reconstruction. Nonetheless, the majority of us are confident that we can navigate these difficult times together. We can restore lives and livelihoods, even in the face of our dangerous, yet majestic, Lady Soufriere.