MEXICO CITY – A group of nervous fish sellers got very close to La Soufrière, the volcano on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, on the morning of May 7, 1902.
“The top of the mountain was covered in mist, and the foremost of them followed the path up to the base of the summit cone," according to a written account of their experience. “Some went up to quite near the lip of the crater, or possibly even to the actual edge. What they saw there was enough to dismay the stoutest hearts.″
The volcano was about to erupt explosively, devastating swathes of the island. Last week, La Soufrière once again started spewing hot torrents of gas, ash and rock, forcing thousands to evacuate to government-run shelters and private homes.
Things look bleak, even if there are no reported casualties. Crops, fishing and other livelihoods are in peril. The pandemic was already battering the economy, including tourism. Still, regional aid is arriving, the United Nations plans to help, and the 1902 catastrophe is a reminder that St. Vincent recovered from massive eruptions in the past.
Recovery this time could take years, requiring sustained support from around the Caribbean and beyond, said Jenni Barclay, a volcanology professor at the University of East Anglia in Britain who co-authored a study on the impact, relief and response of the 1902-3 eruptions.
“The most important thing is making effective use of the resources that they do have, some of the resources that are actually just the ingenuity and the resilience of the people on the island,” Barclay said.
St. Vincent is the biggest of the islands forming St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which gained independence from Britain in 1979 and has a population of about 110,000. In 1902, the warnings of the fish sellers who experienced the volcano up close — the thick steam, the scorched vegetation, the sulfurous smell, the constant shaking — were at first dismissed.
″They were received with incredulity, and when they came to Georgetown they were scoffed at as fools and cowards,″ according to an account of the disaster commissioned by the Royal Society of London and published in 1903. The authors were Tempest Anderson, an ophthalmologist deeply interested in volcanoes, and geologist John Flett.