On 9 April the nation of St Vincent & the Grenadines experienced a huge explosive volcanic eruption on the main island (St Vincent) which has caused great suffering, displacing whole communities, destroying crops, while subsequent volcanic activity continues to bring risk and fear. Amidst this disaster and the COVID pandemic, the Church has been working with the government emergency structures to provide relief and accommodation.
The Bishop of the Windward Islands, Rt Revd C. Leopold Friday, described these events in an appeal letter to the Anglican Communion: “In late December, 2020, the La Soufriere Volcano in St. Vincent began to have some effusive eruptions and a dome developed. On Thursday morning 8th April, 2021 it started to show signs that it may become explosive, so the Prime Minister declared an evacuation order around 5:00pm for those in the red zone. This involved approximately 20,000 persons.
“The Volcano began to erupt explosively on Friday morning around 8:40am. There have been several explosive eruptions since and the whole island experienced ash falls along with neighbouring islands like Barbados, Grenada, and St. Lucia.
“In areas closer to the volcano (orange and red zones) there were falling stones/lava rocks. Several houses collapsed under the weight of the ash/lava stones on their roofs. We had to batten down and remain indoors.”
Having endured the initial eruption, the people of St Vincent have suffered further volcanic activity with clouds of ash and smoke pouring out of the volcano. Bishop Friday explained: “On the morning of 12th April there was another explosive eruption and there were pyroclastic flows in the red zone. These are quite dangerous…. On 13th April, the 42nd anniversary of the 1979 eruption, there was another explosive eruption. The lead scientist is of the view that the eruptions may continue for a while and that several persons may not be able to return to their homes after the eruptions cease.” With urgent and effective action by the government, churches and local communities it is at least encouraging to report that there has been no loss of human life.
An immediate concern was the contamination of the surface water supply with ash fall. Bishop Friday said: “The ash fall affected the water source so we have been without pipe borne water for extended periods.” Other Caribbean islands were quick to respond by sending bottled water until the water supply was cleaned and restored. In the early days, the electricity supply was also interrupted for different periods.
There are also serious concerns about crops and other vegetation. The volcanic ash fall and lava stones have destroyed large areas of agricultural crops as well as the natural vegetation. There is also widespread loss of livestock in the area.
Rainfall has added to the weight of ash on buildings causing further structural damage. Last week, this heavy rainfall caused flooding and landslides, bringing further destruction.
Amidst this ongoing trauma and displacement, the Church has worked with the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) in responding to the people’s needs. Church and wider community members have been coming to the aid of those displaced from the red zone to provide accommodation and support. The church is also providing pastoral care.
Bishop Friday reports: “People are being housed in schools, churches, church halls, community centers, private homes, guest houses etc. The Church is responsible for several emergency centers across the country and there is the immediate need to provide for these persons and those in private homes and guesthouses: water, food, underwear, clothing, pampers for children and adults, toiletries, liquid soap, towels, sheets, medication, face mask, sanitizers and addressing their emotional needs and more. In some cases, constructing temporary baths and cleaning up of ash, especially around emergency shelters.”
The United Nations has warned that the humanitarian crisis on St Vincent may last for months. According to a BBC report, the UN co-ordinator for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Mr Didier Trebucq, described the situation as “a crisis that will require a humanitarian response but also a response in terms of rehabilitation.” The UN says that about 4,000 people remain displaced and are living in 87 shelters. Others are staying with friends or relatives and some have opted to move by boat to the Grenadine islands.
Bishop Friday also sees the crisis extending for many months. “This is a long journey”, he said. “At the moment it is not possible to do an assessment of damages to housing, churches, other buildings, loss of livestock, agriculture and infrastructure for the explosive eruptions continue.”
As of today the island is on orange hazard alert level, which indicates that eruptions can still occur with less than 24 hours’ notice . According to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Agency the seismic activity had stayed low after the tremor associated with the explosion and ash venting on 22 April.
Churches and agencies around the Communion have been praying for the Church and people of St Vincent and surrounding islands. The Anglican Alliance convened a call for Communion partners to hear directly from Bishop Friday and his colleagues and learn more about the situation and how the Communion can respond. Solidarity grants have been offered by various agencies. If you would like to support these appeals please see the details below.
Following the Anglican Alliance call, its Relief and Resilience Manager, Dr Janice Proud, said: “From [Bishop Friday’s] report to the partners, it sounds as though there are some clear response areas where the church is already playing an important role: shelters, meals, pastoral and spiritual care, trauma healing. It is great to see that the church is already playing to its strengths of being in the community, knowing the community, caring for their practical, emotional and spiritual needs.”
The Anglican Alliance call also included sharing learning from the experience of the Pacific churches and agencies in supporting communities to recover from the volcanic eruption in Ambae, Vanuatu.
Clifton Nedd, Caribbean Facilitator for the Anglican Alliance, has been in close touch with the Bishop and Church throughout this crisis. Clifton commented: “The eruption has upended many lives across St Vincent with devastating impacts on agricultural districts. It is heart-breaking to watch; but we are comforted by the outpouring of solidarity and commitment to stand with those affected as they look to the future. We also remember and commend the people of Barbados who are providing fraternal aid to St. Vincent and the Grenadines even as they are themselves coping with the effects of significant ash fall from La Soufrière.”
Bishop Friday reflected: “This is surely a trying time for us all in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, because at the same time we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the realities related to both, along with all the other challenges of our lives.
“The present experience may cause us to wrestle with our faith, but it does not define who we are, our moments of wrestling must be seen as stepping stones to deeper faith, growth and maturity. They enable us to be more aware and sensitive to that which brings us all to life; that which is essential to our human existence. They provide opportunities for us to turn away from that which deadens our hearts and minds, so that we may be messengers of hope.”
Please see the links below for agencies supporting the Church response in St Vincent, where you can make a donation online:
Episcopal Relief & Development, link here, select Disaster Fund.
Diocese of Calgary, link here, encouraging support of PWRDF appeal for St Vincent.
Please pray for the Church and people in St Vincent and the Grenadines and in the surrounding nations.
God is our refuge God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (from Psalm 46)
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