By Grace Davis
New York City, New York
On April 8, the volcano La Soufrière erupted for the first time since 1979 on the island of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Surrounded by the Caribbean sea on all sides, Saint Vincent is an island located in the eastern Caribbean that is prone to earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions. La Soufrière is the highest peak in Saint Vincent and has had five recorded volcanic eruptions since 1718.
The Iris spoke to local Vincentian teacher Cordell John about her experience during the eruption, which she called Saint Vincent’s “other pandemic,” and the subsequent devastation it has brought to the island.
John has been a teacher at the Layou Government School in the town of Layou for 33 years. A teacher of grades Kindergarten and I, John’s school was recently turned into a shelter where she is volunteering to help house, feed and provide for many families and children.
She described the extremely high temperatures on the island, explaining that before the eruptive activity was announced by scientists on December 29, “you could almost predict that something was wrong because of the heat waves that we have been experiencing.”
John noted that there is variety throughout the island regarding which places are experiencing the most ash from volcanic activity. The country has been divided into red, orange and green zones, with red zones being communities closest to the volcano. Layou is considered a safe zone, yet according to John, she could hear the sounds of the eruption from her sister’s house there, and it “didn’t sound safe at all.” She said, “You can imagine the feeling of people who were in the orange zone and the red zone during the time of the disaster.” There were “terrible, thunderous sounds,” and even in the “safe” green zone, she could see lightning flashes at night and light from the lava at the mountain peak.
John said that everyone had to “deal with the ashes for about two weeks, constantly blowing around the air” and that “after the ashes started falling, it was difficult to look up because you would get ashes in your eyes.” By now, most of the ashes have been washed away from the trees by rain, anticipating the Vincentian hurricane season beginning on June 4.
According to Vincentian New York resident Gale John, the “land on which the Garifuna [Afro-Indigenous population of St. Vincent] once lived, including Sandy Bay, is now covered by water surging from the volcano.”
Devastating many buildings on the island, ash from the volcano combined with water and collapsed the roofs of churches, homes and schools. John said that many people in the shelters are there because their homes have been destroyed by the ash “like dry snow” from the volcano, and many of them do not have the resources to rent an apartment or live with a relative.
According to John, many of those in the shelter are already less fortunate than others on the island; many are unemployed or food insecure. Many hail from the same village or come in families. Volunteers at the shelter provide food, clothing and other necessities. Food is very important, given that many of those impoverished by the volcano are farmers whose “crops, [including] coconut trees and breadfruit trees have been destroyed.”
John illustrated the scene at the shelter as one of love and support. She provides support to many individuals, including a young child who is neurodiverse and has non-traditional physical abilities. She and other teachers “console people, talk to them, listen to them, and socialize with them.” The volunteers “play little…informal games with [the children and others in the shelter]” in addition to “sooth[ing] them” and listening to “their complaints and needs, their grievances, their concerns.”
When asked how non-Vincentians can support those on the island, John said that “help could be short term and long term.” From a “teaching pointing view, help is classified according to needs. Help and needs go hand in hand.” As an educator, John is concerned about the long term effects of both disasters—COVID-19 and the volcano eruption—on education. She believes that “the greatest need of [her] people right now is education.”
John said that it is a “complex situation in Saint Vincent because we have just come out of the COVID-19 pandemic where we were hoping to reopen school on April 12. We were home for one school term, with no face-to-face class [conducting classes online instead] since the beginning of the year.”
She said that educators on the island were “anxiously awaiting, with mixed feelings, going back to school on April 12.” She attributed the mixed emotions about a return to in-person learning to the fact that “although the ministry [of health] asked teachers to do online classes, it still did not work for a large percentage of people. Based on statistics, more than half of children have been affected adversely by online classes for a number of reasons; they lack parental support, devices or discipline.”
John said that kindergarten and first-grade students have to “be supported, have someone sitting with them and be attentive to teaching online.” A lot of her students “lack that support so the attendance was not good.” She worries that a “lot has been lost” and that the “illiteracy rate will double” because the children have been home for five months without any “active engagement in schoolwork.”
An advocate for everyone in the shelter, John strongly believes that children need long-term educational and moral support as well as financial support. They need “ongoing support” in addition to “clothing and food.”
“You can build back houses, but you cannot repair minds,” she said. A devoted and experienced educator, John believes that it is better to “give a child a book and pencil than to give a child money.”
John said that “we have to have hope.” She “love[s] Saint Vincent” and believes it is a wonderful, peaceful country that happens to be “prone to a lot of natural disasters.” She loves education, and she believes in the power of education to “cover a multitude.”
Katherine Melville, a Vincentian San Francisco resident, said, “As a Vincentian immigrant who left as a child but retained deep affection for my homeland, I am saddened for my countrymen and women. My heart goes out to them. I know Vincentians due to their characteristic resilience and resourcefulness will emerge from this crisis united with more love in our hearts. I hope St. Vincent can prepare for future natural disasters.”
New York high school student Kiara White said, “As a first-generation Vincentian American, I grew up listening to the stories my parents would tell of the trauma they experienced during the 1979 eruption of La Soufrière. Staying updated on the current humanitarian crisis, which far exceeds the scale of their childhood nightmare, has helped me to understand the importance of aiding those impacted in any way possible. I hope and believe that St. Vincent will be able to recover through the work of every brave person taking on the cause.”
John believes that hope and faith can be found “in every storm.”