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When a volcano erupts in the midst of a global pandemic

La Soufriere volcano following the eruption

By Deborah Dowlath. This article was originally posted on her blog, A Drop in de Ocean.

As a relief and development organization, ITNAC has been responding to local, regional and international disasters since Hurricane Ivan hit Grenada in 2004. In 2014, we travelled to St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) to bring relief following the Christmas Eve flooding, and it was there we met Pastor Kelron Harry and his wife Roie Ann Harry. They became regular ministry partners, and we were able to continue to work with them when there were subsequent flooding or other major needs.

Thankfully, the Caribbean region was spared any major disasters in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the western hemisphere. However, in December 2020 Pastor Harry informed us that scientists in SVG were monitoring increasing seismic activity associated with the La Soufriere volcano. There was a dome building on one side of the volcano, emitting magna, rock and sulphur. Locals who experienced the eruptions in 1979 started to leave the orange and red zones, which were the areas closest to the volcano. The country's major concern was the contamination of their water supply in the event of an explosive eruption, as the ash would cover the entire island and settle in their rivers and springs.

On March 23rd 2021, scientists started recording volcano-tectonic earthquakes, which indicated that an explosive eruption was imminent. The National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) sent out advisories to persons residing in the orange and red zones to prepare themselves in the event that it became necessary for them to evacuate at short notice. Experts predicted that a series of tsunamis could possibly follow an eruption, which would disrupt port operations.

Pastor Harry and his team secured a forty (40) foot container and started to place supplies in it, in preparation for the families who would be in need after having fled their homes. One week later, ITNAC started mobilizing to collect and pack supplies of food and water to be shipped to SVG. We figured that it would be best to get as many items as possible into SVG before the volcano erupted, since no one could know how difficult it may be to get aid into the country following the eruption. The first shipment of relief supplies left Trinidad on March 31st and our ministry partners in SVG were able to collect on April 6th. The volcano-tectonic earthquakes were getting stronger and being felt by more communities close to the volcano.

Items from relief shipment sent prior to the eruption

We continued pushing locally for donations of relief supplies, making appeals on facebook and circulating flyers to spread the word. We were on a race against time, as we knew the volcano was going to erupt soon, but we just didn't know when. Since we were restricted by public health protocols to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, we could not host a massive event to collect items like we have done in past disaster responses. Instead, we set up collection points in various parts of Trinidad and Tobago where we have ministry partners, to facilitate members of the public who wanted to donate but could not make it to our home base at Bombay Street in St. James.

By April 7th, in addition to food stuff, water and toiletries, we were able to purchase and ship four 1000 gallon water tanks, which we knew would be critical to ensuring persons had an adequate supply of safe drinking water following the eruption. We were seeing the favour of the Lord, as we received discounts on the cost of the tanks, as well as transportation to the port in Trinidad, and the cost of shipping the items to SVG.

One of our long-standing members, Aunty Vanessa, helping offload a truckload of donations

On April 8th, notice was given by authorities to evacuate the areas close to the volcano, and the violent eruption which had been forecast occurred on the morning of April 9th. The entire island, even the 'safe' zones, was covered with volcanic ash. The ash caused people's eyes to burn and skin to itch, and a few days later when the rain fell, the ash became hard like cement, clogging drains and making clean-up operations even harder. The water supply was shut down for safety reasons, and there was one reported death. The ash was so thick on some peoples' homes that it caused their roofs to cave in, and huge boulders catapulted from the volcano caused structural damage to several homes when they landed.

This served to stimulate the response by Trinbagonians to our relief drive, as it was impossible to ignore the plight now being faced by the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. More collection points were added as the donations started to pour in. Thanks to a partnership with a local pharmacist, we were also able to send up medication for persons suffering with asthma and allergies. Our ministry partners in the USA and the UK also started mobilizing to collect and ship items directly to our contact in SVG.

Structural damage caused by the weight of volcanic ash

The first few days following the eruption were the worst. The supplies which we had sent up prior to the eruption quickly vanished, as there were many who were housing additional persons in their homes. The demand for water and food to cater for these additional mouths soon exceeded the supply, and there were a few days that many families went without even a bottle of water to drink. As the days went by more boats became available for us to ship supplies up. By April 14th, less than one week after the eruption, our Vincy partners cleared our third shipment of much needed supplies of food, water, toiletries, safety equipment and baby supplies. Later on we were able to send cleaning supplies, mattresses and cots. That same evening in Trinidad, our team was hard at work loading two 40- foot containers of supplies. Later that week, the water treatment plant in SVG was able to resume a limited pipe-borne supply, so some residents started getting a measure of relief.

We sent literally thousands of cases of water to St. Vincent those few weeks after the eruption

By April 16th we were able to ship a further thirty (30) pallets of water and seventeen (17) water tanks to SVG. It was amazing the level of generosity of our local donors, because these items were being given in the middle of a month, in the middle of a pandemic. We give all glory to God for moving on the hearts of persons to give abundantly. We received donations from individuals, churches, corporate organizations and schools. We were also blessed with many persons, of every creed and race, who came to volunteer and were able to help with the tasks of loading and packing. The majority of the ITNAC members are female, so we were beyond grateful for all the additional hands that came to volunteer which served to make the load lighter.

100 facemasks handmade by someone who received a hamper from us last year

When the government of Trinidad and Tobago got involved in sending aid to our Caribbean neighbours, we were able to get space on the vessels that they were using to send items which were donated through our organization, thereby saving thousands of dollars’ worth of shipping fees. Because we were getting a 'free ride', we needed to ensure that our goods were palletized and ready to be loaded, either on to containers or trucks to be taken to the ports, when we were granted space. Our ITNAC team members and volunteers worked tireless in those first few weeks, until the early hours of the morning on some occasions, to ensure that we maximized the opportunities we were granted to ship our items for free. Donations had to be packed into boxes, catalogued and labelled, before being placed on pallets for shipping.

Loading a pallet of goods to be shipped

The eruptions continued over the next two weeks. There would be some days which were quiet, but these would be followed by another eruption. Persons still made efforts to clean up, however, in order to not have the ash build up too thick. There were also reports of pyroclastic flows, where fragments of hot ashes and rocks were rolling downwards from the mountain at high speeds on their way to the sea, causing severe damage to structures which were in their way. Much assistance will be needed in the rebuilding phase, as many persons were already struggling financially due to loss of income resulting from the pandemic.

These residents will have to do a massive clean up before they can return to their homes.

In addition to items which were being donated to the general population in SVG, we were approached by many persons locally who wanted to send items directly to their family or friends in SVG who were in need. Those who were able to were asked to pay a small fee to help cover local transportation costs, and the items were sent up alongside our general donations.

People in Trinidad really appreciated the service being offered, since it saved them the hassle of going down to the port and dealing with all the associated bureaucracy. They found it unbelievable that their loved ones could actually receive the items that they sent through us safely during a time of disaster. We received so many heart-warming notes of thanks when the family members received the boxes which were sent, as for many of them it was the first time they received any aid since the eruption. One family in Trinidad dropped off three (3) barrels of supplies for their family in SVG, and they received it two days later. One mother shared her joy at receiving a bag of soap powder that would enable her to wash her children's clothes; such a small item that we would take for granted.

Goods landed in St. Vincent, awaiting unpacking and distribution

Here are some notes that we received from persons in SVG who were blessed by the items we were able to send:

"If it wasn't for you... I don't know what would have become of us, because to be honest, no one else has reach out more than... you and we thank you all very much from the bottom of our heart, and I'm so happy when I saw the 3 cases of water because we are out, we doh even have any to bathe at this moment, [except for] some in the kitchen to do some washing up and cooking.. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

"We will like to extend our heartfelt appreciated to the work you have done in extending your hands towards [us] during these uncertain times. We will forever be grateful and thankful for the help that has been rendered to us from your team ITNAC. We pray that God will continue to bless and provide bountifully for yourselves and your families. Again we say thank you!! :) :) :)"
Loading toiletries donated by my alma mater

Throughout this entire season, we have seen the favour of the Lord in numerous ways. One company that was shipping goods to St. Vincent agreed to give us space on their boat, but only for food stuff. On the day it was scheduled to depart, we were told that we could have sent any category of supplies we needed to!

When the Galleons Passage was used to ship items, the Trinidadian Defense Force Officer that accompanied the shipment took a special interest in our goods, ensuring that they were dispatched to our contact in St. Vincent, instead of being lumped with the general donations that were sent. He even jumped onto a forklift to assist with loading the pallets onto a truck when the port workers in St. Vincent left for the day while our supplies were still being off-loaded. A Vincentian businessman provided the use of his warehouse for storing goods prior to their distribution. We also received free local transport, and many volunteers who helped with loading, offloading and distributing supplies.

Loading supplies on the port late into the night

The ODPM gave ITNAC space on container headed to St. Vincent, but it was consigned to the Chamber of Commerce. When Pastor Harry tried to retrieve the items which we sent to him on this container, he was told that he did not have jurisdiction to get them, because the container was sent to the Chamber. We were able to get on to the Director of the Chamber of Commerce, and on hearing our story, he consigned the container to Pastor Harry, as well as all future shipments coming in their name. This partnership gives us the assurance that items sent through ITNAC will not end up in a stockpile somewhere, or be confiscated at the port.

Another way that we saw God's hand of favor in a mighty way is that we were able to sign a contract with IOM (International Organization for Migration) - a UN Agency that provides support for persons displaced from their homes by natural disasters. This partnership will increase ITNAC's access to resources, while giving us greater visibility and accreditation. Thanks to their donors, we were able to supply 1200 hygiene kits to persons who were displaced from their homes by the eruption.

Hardworking ITNAC members putting together hygiene kits

Thankfully the La Soufriere eruptions stopped by the end of April, and those who were living in the 'orange' zone were able to return to their homes. However, there will be a lot of work needed before those living in the 'red' zone can be relocated, so we continue to collect and send items up to help these families in need. As the covid cases in Trinidad and Tobago began to rise in May, we had to close down some of our collection points, but we are still gathering and shipping supplies to the Vincentians. When manpower became limited due to the State of Emergency, the Community Relations department of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service sent manpower to help load containers and provide security.

Members of the TTPS Community Relations helping to load supplies on our latest container

We stand in amazement at all God enabled us to do to walk alongside our Vincentian brothers and sisters in their time of need, in the midst of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. To date, we have been able to mobilize ten shipments, in addition to four 40-foot containers of supplies. Even though we would have loved to jump on a plane or a boat to be there in person to render aid, we thank God that we have trusted partners who are able to mobilize the resources needed to get relief supplies to those most in need. We are beyond grateful to those who have given generously, some even out of their place of need, whether of their time, expertise, finances or other resources, which have enabled us to be God's hands and feet at this crucial time.

Pastor Kelron Harry and his wife Roie-Ann, our main ministry partners on the ground in St. Vincent

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