“I’ll never forget that day” – 36th Anniversary of La Soufriere, St. Vincent

Today marks the 36th anniversary of the last eruption of La Soufriere on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. I’m currently on the island as part of my PhD research into how we can use educational computer games to improve volcanic hazard education and outreach.

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La Soufriere summit crater with the current lava dome that was extruded between 1979-1980. Photo taken 03/4/15.

Last January the STREVA Project ran workshops on St. Vincent to record peoples accounts of the 1979 eruption and to gain an understanding of people awareness of risk – you can read more about it here and here. It was incredible to hear, so vividly, people recall their experience of that eruption and how the island responded.

I’ve been on the island just under 3 weeks now and during this time many people have told me their experiences of that Good Friday, 1979. A few in particular have stuck in my mind and I thought I would share them with you.

I happened to sit next to a lady on the flight to Barbados, who was from St. Vincent, and she told me she was around 7 at the time of the eruption: “I was in Orange Hill (an old plantation estate on the windward side) at the time with my Nanny. I remember the panic, people running and so much noise – everyone was moving south.” She explained her family lived on the nearby Grenadine island of Bequia: “My daddy came across on the boat and picked us up and took us home. We looked back at the island and it was dark. He told me he’d taken the boat to the Leeward side of the island to see what was happening and saw lava pouring into the sea. I’ll never forget that day”.

Last week I visited the community of Fancy, the northern-most town on the island, to run a workshop. I had 7 participants who began to tell me the story of their community during the eruption. “We knew something was wrong, we heard some rumblings but we thought it was thunder” explained one of the participants. “I remember that radio broadcast from Milton Cato, ‘My Vincentian people, don’t panic! Don’t panic!’” the group laughed at this memory and many people, when they think of the eruption, recall that radio message. One participant continues to explain “We got a call and they told us to get ready so we all calmly packed up our things and waited on the roadside. The Government buses came and we got on and they took us south to the shelters. By then though the ashes were falling so heavily and we had to knock out the windscreen of the bus so he could see!”. One participant went on to recall “I remember those thunder clouds come rumbling down the volcano and the lightning and the lavas flowing down the valleys to the sea, it was so terrifying. I never want to see that again, I’ll never forget that day.”

The participants from Fancy played the game I have developed which depicts the 1979 eruption. There were murmurings around the room as it aroused memories of that time – “do you remember that cloud?” I heard one lady ask another “It came rumbling down so fast”.

Workshop participants in Fancy playing the computer game depicting the 1979 eruption.

Workshop participants in Fancy playing the computer game depicting the 1979 eruption.

Interestingly also both accounts recall watching lava pouring into the ocean. When discussed further with the groups it’s clear that there is a common misunderstanding – in fact what they’re talking about is lahars or volcanic mudflows. There were no lava flows associated with the 1979 eruption. This is something I have noted in the accounts of several people during my time on the island.

Another great recollection of that day in 1979 from Dr Richie Robertson from UWI SRC which can be read on the London Volcano Blog along with some superb photos. Everybody has a story from 1979 and those that I’ve spoken to always end by saying “I’ll never forget that day” and it’s not hard to understand why. You can hear more about people’s accounts from 1979 through three great films produced by the STEVA team last year which can be found here.

Next week I’ll be joining UWI SRC and NEMO in a campaign of education and outreach during the annual Volcano Awareness Week on St. Vincent in commemoration of the 1979 eruption. We’ll be running workshops in schools across the island and running community sessions. I’ll be blogging and tweeting about our progress throughout!

– L

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The view across Chateaubelair to La Soufriere

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