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Stranded in St Vincent

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Foster and Patricia Burke (Photograph supplied)
Foster Burke in Bermuda with his daughter Janita and granddaughter McKenzie Bean (Photograph supplied)
A plume of ash and smoke erupting from La Soufrière in St Vincent (Photograph supplied)
Mud and ash flowing through a village in St Vincent (Photograph supplied)

Volcanic ash coats Foster Burke’s backyard in St Vincent & the Grenadines.

It covers his roof, his trees, his grass and his car and it’s been constant, since the first eruption from La Soufrière on April 9.

“Every time the wind blows, it blows everywhere,” Mr Burke said. “The ash gets on the porch and in the house.”

To keep it outside he has to keep his windows closed as the ash is so fine it comes straight through the screens. He also has to be careful about turning on the air conditioning, as it can suck ash in with the air.

St Vincent-born, Mr Burke worked in Bermuda for most of his adult life – first as a police officer and then in security. Now retired, he and his wife Patricia split their time between the two islands.

He has been in St Andrew, a parish in the southern Caribbean nation, since February. Emergency officials have said the 133-square-mile island resembles “a battle zone”. More than 20,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes.

“I really didn’t realise it would be this bad,” said Mr Burke, explaining that there were signs of what was coming back in December.

“It is not a sudden thing. It was known it would erupt. From that point of view no one was caught off guard. There were rumblings, earthquakes and sulphur; there was hot magma coming up, burning up the vegetation around the rim of the crater.”

His plans to return to Bermuda were cancelled by ash on the runway of Argyle International Airport, in nearby Kingstown.

“The volcano had other plans,” he said. “I have had two attempts in the last week. Both were scrubbed because the airport wasn’t open.”

By Saturday, when the airport was clean and ready for traffic, he was unable to travel. Too much time had passed since his Covid-19 test; a new one wouldn’t have given him the results fast enough.

Despite that he is in a better position than many on the island. The government has divided St Vincent into four zones – Red, Orange, Yellow and Green, with Red being the most dangerous.

Mr Burke’s home is in the Green Zone, 15 miles south of the eruption. He has not felt the ground move but has heard a constant rumble, similar to distant thunder.

“The closer you were to it, the louder it sounded,” he said. “To people very near it would have sounded like explosive thunder.”

On April 9 many people went outside to take photos of the ash and smoke billowing from La Soufrière.

“It was visible from all angles,” Mr Burke said.

About 16 inches of ash laced with sulphur have since fallen on St Vincent & the Grenadines as well as the neighbouring islands of Barbados, St Lucia and Grenada.

“It is ash from burning rocks that have burnt so hot and ground so fine,” he said. “It is finer than flour or talcum powder, but when it gets wet it becomes hard, almost like concrete. When it is still wet it can be very slippery and heavy.”

Mr Burke has people living with him, displaced by the eruption; loved ones who lived near the volcano were evacuated from their homes.

In the Red Zone, there’s so much ash residents have resorted to using backhoes to remove it.

Mud slides are also a danger, as are falling rocks and fast-moving lava that burns everything in its path.

Last week Mr Burke took a drive north to his birthplace, Troumaca, St David’s, which sits in the Orange Zone.

“I thought I would just go down and take a look to see what is happening but it was not that simple,” he said, explaining how the mountainous area was covered in a cloud of ash and smoke.

“I couldn’t see anything. Then I saw how dangerous it was.”

The ash was ankle-deep, in some places knee-high. He watched as people worked diligently trying to clear it from their roofs, most likely worried that rain would fall and their homes would collapse under the weight.

“I would imagine that some people are anxious about living in shelters or with friends and family,” he said. “They want to go back to their homes, if only to see what is happening. There are some places where it is just too dangerous.”

Finding fresh water was a challenge although now bottled water is coming in from other countries.

“In St Vincent, unlike Bermuda, most people get their fresh water from rivers and streams. It is collected in reservoirs and then piped into homes,” Mr Burke said. “They had to discontinue the carriage of water [because] some of the reservoirs were contaminated with ash.”

The United Nations has launched a $29 million global funding appeal in aid of the island; Bermuda has committed $50,000 in assistance.

“It is costing the [St Vincent] government a lot of money to feed these people and to keep them otherwise occupied,” Mr Burke said. “People need beds, cots and other sleeping apparatus.

“They need water and food, particularly dried food stuffs such as rice, flour and canned goods, things that won’t immediately perish. They also need hygienic items such as soap and towels and anything you might need for the bathroom.”

Experts have been unable to say if eruptions will get more or less intense in the coming days and weeks.

“I think it is too early to tell,” Mr Burke said. “Volcanoes can erupt for weeks and months. The last time La Soufrière erupted in 1979, I was living in Bermuda, fortunately.”

To donate to the St Vincent appeal, call the Bermuda Red Cross at 232-1945, during shelter in place.

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Published April 26, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated April 28, 2021 at 9:06 am)

Stranded in St Vincent

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