Reporting from St Vincent
A GRATEFUL Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines was on hand on Tuesday afternoon to greet the MV Galleons Passage, which arrived from Trinidad laden with much-needed supplies for the volcano-stricken island.
Gonsalves was met by Lt Col Josette McLean of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force as the ferry docked at about 5 pm (St Vincent time). Speaking with reporters who accompanied military personnel on board the ferry, Gonsalves had a clear message to the TT people and government.
"We have all kinds of challenges, but I want to say, I want to thank the government and people of Trinidad and Tobago for this much-needed assistance. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart from all the people of St Vincent."
Gonsalves, noting his familial ties to TT said that country's benevolence was born out of an abundance of love.
"In my case, my mother, God bless her soul, was born in Trinidad. My wife is also from Trinidad. So I am entitled to Trinidadian citizenship," he joked. "Trinidad and Tobago is the land of my mother and the land of my wife."
He said he was extremely grateful for water, which came in the form of three full water trucks, as the local supply, which he said was usually good, had dipped to around ten per cent capacity, owing to the volcanic ash which had contaminated supply.
He said the TT soldiers will work alongside their local counterparts to enhance the safety of shelters, help in reconstruction and ensure miscreants do not use the natural disaster to commit crime.
Gonsalves said he has been in constant contact with his TT counterpart Dr Keith Rowley, whom he described as an excellent chair of Caricom. "I want to send a message to my brother Keith, I want to tell him thanks."
He said the eruption of the La Soufriere volcano last Friday and again on Tuesday had brought out the best in the Caribbean community and ordinary Vincentian citizens who have opened their homes to complete strangers.
"We have to address this matter with love. And what the people and government of Trinidad and Tobago have done here is love. Bob Marley sang about it, Shakespeare wrote about it, Paul has it in his Second Letter to the Corinthians and it's been manifested today among our Caribbean family and among our Vincentian family as well," Gonsalves said.
He said although there was an option for Vincentians to leave and go to other Caribbean islands, this has not happened. "Nobody was evacuated to Barbados and St Lucia. It doesn't make sense to pursue this option, simply because the people do not want to leave their country. They want to stay, endure this and help to rebuild their country. What a thing, eh. What a magnificent story."
Shortly after disembarking, Lt Col McClean – a 24-year veteran of the TT Defence Force – told reporters that 39 Defence Force officers had arrived along with the supplies and an additional 11 would arrive "sometime tonight" in a TT Coast Guard vessel and that this force of 50 would be in St Vincent for the next two weeks.
She said the relief supplies, which were donated by TT businesses as well as ordinary citizens, comprised mainly canned food items, bottled water and personal sanitary items. Gonsalves later asked members of his entourage to ensure all the necessary protocols were in place for the three water trucks to be taken elsewhere so that the water could be used properly.
Asked how she felt to be on this mission, McLean said, "It feels really good." She said TT was happy to support "our brothers and sisters in St Vincent" any way it can. "We are happy to be here to help." She added that officers from the TT Immigration Department accompanied the soldiers on the trip to assist any TT citizen in St Vincent who wanted to be repatriated.
Asked what the people of St Vincent need urgently at this moment, Gonsalves listed items such as food, water, cots and mattresses.
He revealed meeting on Monday with his country's National Emergency Management Council, at which some of the major supermarket operators were invited to discuss the issue of making food initially earmarked for export available to the people in this moment of crisis.
Before departing Trinidad on Tuesday morning, it took soldiers 15 hours to load the supplies on to the Galleons Passage. National Security Minister Stuart Young spoke to the soldiers on board beforehand, hailing the "remarkable" effort involved to provide humanitarian aid to St Vincent.
He told them, "As usual, you've risen to the occasion. You are going into – I don't know how to term it – but a zone that is not a normal zone. There is an active volcano...When you are there, do not disappoint us. Remember you are representing the red, white and black.”
Young also implored the soldiers, Red Cross and other humanitarian contingent, "Be careful, be safe. People forget we are still in a pandemic. You are going to assist those who are in need." Young said the Prime Minister and himself had been in contact with Gonsalves to find out what Vincentians need.
"One of the major concerns is lack of water. We are trying to arrange marine vessels to take water. We have a number of water trucks on the Galleons Passage, mattresses, foodstuff. We will be sending another vessel up with more relief items.”
RED CROSS EN ROUTE
Red Cross members were also among the TT contingent headed to St Vincent on Tuesday and some of them expressed excitement and fear as they headed to ground zero to provide humanitarian aid.
The La Soufriere volcano continues to rumble and erupt, with pyroclastic flow (fast-moving currents of hot gas and volcanic matter) causing serious damage in the red zone.
The incessant ash from the volcano continues to fall like snow and burn the skin on contact. La Soufriere erupted again Tuesday morning at about 6.30 am, 42 years to the day of the 1979 eruption.
Rhea Pierre, disaster preparedness co-ordinator with the International Federation of the Red Cross, Port of Spain, told Newsday aboard the boat that the decision to go to St Vincent was not a simple one.
"It's one of those things where you run the full gamut of emotions all at the same time," she said. "You're excited, scared, you're cognisant of what is going on the ground, but it's one of those things – how do I not go? When you are called to serve, how do I not go?"
Ariel Kestens, head of the delegation from the International Federation, Red Cross, Dutch and English-speaking Caribbean, said the organisation is aiming to aid 100 families in shelters.
"Once we are on the ground, we will continue analysing the needs and start distribution. We have mobilised resources, non-food items: shelter kits, hygienic kits and water."
He added, "It's my first time in an active volcano, but not first time in a disaster. We've been working in Bahamas (severely hit by Hurricane Dorian in 2019).
"I'm happy, excited to go out there with all support from population in different countries. We continue to receive solidarity and contributions." Pierre said the Red Cross also aims to help neighbouring countries that have been affected.