Erupting Volcano in the Caribbean Prompts Immediate Response

As La Soufrière displaces 20,000 from the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent, Direct Relief prepares shipments of medical aid.

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Volcanoes

A view of St. Vincent and the Grenadines' La Soufrière volcano. (Photo courtesy of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center)
A view of St. Vincent and the Grenadines' La Soufrière volcano. (Photo courtesy of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center)

One of the Caribbean’s most active volcanoes, La Soufrière in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, erupted Friday morning, just one day after authorities announced that eruption was an imminent threat.

Approximately 20,000 people – representing about 20% of the Caribbean nation’s total population – have been evacuated, many of them on cruise ships that were deployed to St. Vincent for that purpose. Some evacuees have been ferried to nearby nations, and St. Lucia, Grenada, and Antigua and Barbuda are all welcoming evacuees.

There have been signs over the past week that the volcano, which last erupted in 1979, and which killed 1,600 people during a devastating 1902 eruption, was close to doing so again.

Emergency Response Underway

Direct Relief began responding to the crisis Thursday, communicating with the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) to discuss medical needs in the region and to proffer support. Direct Relief and OECS have an existing memorandum of understanding that enables the aid organization to provide swift support to Caribbean member states, allowing for a quick, effective response to arising emergencies. In such situations, Direct Relief typically works with a country’s ministry of health to deliver requested medications and supplies. 

Currently, Direct Relief is preparing an approximately 8-pallet delivery of medical aid intended for St. Vincent’s Ministry of Health. The shipment contains an assortment of emergency supplies, including respiratory medications, N95 masks, burn creams, cots, first aid kits, hygiene items, and two Direct Relief wildfire kits.

In addition, the organization is preparing two wildfire kits, along with a supply of emergency medical backpacks and PPE, for shipment to the Pan American Health Organization, which has activated its Emergency Operations Center.

Finally, the Barbados Defense Force’s medical field team, which received a shipment of supplies from Direct Relief in March, is preparing for deployment to St. Vincent.

The supplies currently being prepared for shipment are intended to meet the most immediate medical needs. With 20,000 evacuees spread out over a large area and in different nations, however, it is likely that additional medical needs will emerge in the coming days. Direct Relief stands prepared to ship additional medical aid to the region as it is requested.

Health Concerns

In particular, health concerns related to volcanic eruptions include respiratory complications caused by volcanic ash and toxic particulates; skin burns and irritation; and contaminated water supplies. As with any disaster, health issues related to displacement are a serious concern. These include the worsening of chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, that often require medication and medical supervision to be managed successfully. Evacuees frequently leave in a hurry, leaving their medications behind.

Direct Relief’s wildfire kits have proven particularly useful during volcano response efforts, as both disasters are connected to similar health concerns. The kits contain respiratory medications for breathing issues; ophthalmic products for eye irritation; products for burns and other skin issues; and chronic disease medications such as therapies for high blood pressure and diabetes.

The organization’s most recent volcano response was to the Taal volcano eruption in the Philippines, which displaced approximately 460,000 people, destroyed thousands of livelihoods, and caused widespread respiratory issues and mental health concerns.

In addition, Direct Relief responded extensively to the eruption of the Fuego volcano in Guatemala, which killed nearly 200 people.

The organization’s priorities involve both meeting immediate medical needs and ensuring continuity of health care over a longer period. Direct Relief will continue to monitor the situation and respond as needed.

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