Four decades later: How the impact of two volcanic eruptions differ
La Soufrière volcano in the north of the Caribbean island of St Vincent erupted twice within Chief Augustine Sutherland’s lifetime. First in 1979 when he was displaced from Sandy Bay where the majority of the Kalinago tribe live, and again in 2021 when IsraAID arrived to support the emergency response. Both eruptions caused major devastation in the community, physically and emotionally.
As part of IsraAID’s Emergency Response Team, I met the chief to learn about the needs of his community. We met in the tribe’s cultural center in Kingstown, the country’s capital, where he has been living for over 20 years. Although not the ancestral land of his tribe, the chief grew up in Sandy Bay where the Kalinago people of St Vincent and the Grenadines are concentrated. Sandy Bay is in the “red zone” of the island, the area most at risk from volcanic eruptions. Since the eruption in 1979 that caused over 1000 fatalities, many members of the Kalinago tribe did not return to their homes in Sandy Bay, on the northeast side of the island, just kilometers from the volcano.
Displaced to a school in the “green zone”, the southernmost part of the island, in 1979, the community faced hardships. Most of the island’s population had never been exposed to the Kalinago minority, so there was a lot of unfamiliarity and stereotypes between communities. After leaving the green zone, these challenges continued for Augustine in Spring Village, his new home in a location near his father’s new job. Chief Augustine Sutherland demonstrating how the Kalinago tribe traditionally made a fire
The difficult experience of the 1979 eruption carried into the most recent eruption, prolonging the impact on the community. Some members of the community in Sandy Bay defied evacuation orders due to worries of theft of property as seen in 1979. After days of ash and rockfall, and bad air quality, more of the community left for the green zone, while a few remained permanently, including the chief’s nephew who survived on untreated water from the nearby spring and food delivered by boat.
Many of the adults in the community still suffer from memories of displacement in their childhood. Facing another eruption, Augustine knew the community would need mental health support to prevent their collective trauma from spreading to the younger generation.
“We have an opportunity now to teach the younger ones, to counsel the children who evacuated, how to go back to school in a community with people they don’t know.”
From our first meeting with the chief, we knew that IsraAID could be part of his trauma support plan. Through 25 community mobilizers who we have trained in psychosocial support, resilience building, self-care, and stress management, we hope that hundreds of children and their families will not be marked by the eruption in the same way Chief Augustine was as a child. Child Friendly Space participant painting the flag of St Vincent and the Grenadines with her hands
We opened six Child Friendly Spaces for children displaced by the eruption, primarily from the Kalinago tribe. Most of them are sheltering in private homes, without any regular activities, and after over a year out of school due to the pandemic. It is clear from the reports of the facilitators that many of the over 300 children we are reaching are craving structure. Guy Shrayer, Head of Mission, is overwhelmed with the commitment and motivation of the community volunteers,
“It fills my heart with joy to see them implementing our training with such dedication and goodwill.”
42 years later, displacement for the Kalinago tribe looks different. There are many more Kalinago families able to host displaced people in their private homes, minimizing cultural clashes similar to those in 1979. Even in the public shelters, where there are different communities sheltering within the same area, there is positive community spirit among those displaced. As the chief describes it, “a lot of love has come out of this eruption.”
Chief Augustine Sutherland continues to teach his community about their history, including telling his displacement story which started in 1979. As the story of the 2021 eruption develops, the chief believes it will be a more positive one.
Zoë meeting children displaced by the eruption
IsraAID’s Emergency Response Team continues to work in St Vincent as thousands of people remained displaced. The team is focusing on psychosocial support for children as well as training and self-care workshops for teachers affected by the eruption.