by Elisaveta (Eli) Gouretskaia
Seated outside her home, Thelma, age 72, pensively recalls the events and disruptions triggered by the eruption of La Soufriere volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on April 9, 2021. It has been just over a year since the volcano erupted but the effects are still visible in the area.
Remnants of volcanic ash and debris remain and the home that Thelma shares with her husband in Owia, a small town in the very north of the main island of Saint Vincent, suffered severe damage from the heavy ash fall caused by the eruption. Ash from the volcano is piled up on the sides of roads and rooftops while many homes are still undergoing repairs.
When the government ordered the evacuation of the northern part of Saint Vincent just one day before the volcano erupted, Thelma and her husband were forced to leave their home and seek shelter further south on the island. The retired couple moved into their daughter’s house on the windward side (west coast) of the island, where they would spend the next four months. They vividly recall the worries that plagued them during that time, not knowing what had happened to their home in Owia, plagued with the uncertainty of whether they would have a home to return to.
Thelma and her husband were still staying at their daughter’s home when, just three months after the volcanic eruption, Hurricane Elsa would tear the roof off their home in Owia as it swept over Saint Vincent and several other Caribbean islands. Thelma relives her emotional reaction when she received news and saw photos of her damaged house on the internet. But despite her daughter’s initial protests, she was determined to return.
“Home is home,” she says with a strong and resolute smile.
Thelma and her husband have been residents of Owia for their entire lives. This is where they met and got married some 39 years ago. Both worked at the Owia Arrowroot factory (a traditional plant processed into starch products) for over 20 years before they retired.
Thelma’s husband receives a small government pension, while Thelma gets support from a poverty relief programme which allows them to make ends meet and pay their water and electricity bills. But despite the support, Thelma and her husband grappled to meet the bills associated with the damages and disruption caused by the volcanic eruption and subsequent hurricane.
And if the structural impacts to their home were not enough, the aging couple were also forced to face the realities of food insecurity associated with the events. Prior to the eruption, Thelma’s husband used to grow some crops, but the downpour of ash during the eruption affected the soil and made farming more difficult. Farming elsewhere on the island was also affected, causing a decline in the variety of foods available for purchase. In some cases, it became necessary to travel longer distances to find certain foods.
Access to water also became a challenge after the water truck stopped supplying water to the village sometime after the couple’s return to Owia. To get drinking water, Thelma and her husband would now have to go to a natural spring in the nearby village, as they could no longer drink the tap water in their village.
The ageing couple struggled to meet the cost of building materials that they needed to repair their home while still meeting their basic needs.
Things would begin to “look up” when Thelma’s daughter helped her to sign up for assistance offered by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in conjunction with the Ministry of National Mobilisation. Under the Soufriere Relief Grant Programme, which provided support to those affected by the volcanic eruption, Thelma was able to receive monthly cash assistance during the four months following the eruption, as well as supermarket vouchers, which would allow her to purchase food supplies and other essential goods like cleaning products.
Thelma sits before her home in Owia, in the north of Saint Vincent and shares her story with Elisaveta Gouretskaia of the World Food Programme.
The Soufriere Relief Grant Programme, including the complementary technical assistance support were made possible through WFP’s partnership with the European Union, the Government of Canada, the Government of Germany, the Government of Italy, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, USAID Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance and WFP’s own internal funds.
The grant was among a variety of forms of external support that poured in from around the world.
Today, Thelma’s biggest concern is the ongoing repairs required for her home.
“My only hope is [for the government to offer] some sort of assistance to help with the damages caused to our house by the volcanic eruption, and to be safe together with my family,” she says.
Thelma and her husband are not alone. More than 20,000 people in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines were displaced in the aftermath of the eruption of La Soufriere and many are still struggling to recover from the disruption and repair the damage to their homes and properties.