This is how Cato sent home evacuees after 1979 La Soufrière eruption

By Demion McTair. Updated 8:27 p.m., Friday, May 7, 2021, Atlantic Standard Time (GMT-4).

Nearly two months after the April 13 explosive eruption of the La Soufrière volcano in 1979, then Premier, Robert Milton Cato had given the all-clear for evacuees from villages below the Rabacca Dry River to return to their communities.

According to the Friday, June 15, 1979 edition of The Vincentian Newspaper, Mr. Cato addressed the people of St. Vincent on Friday, June 8, telling them the present phase of volcanic activity at the Soufrière “involves the quiet emission of lava and is similar in pattern to that of the 1971 eruption”.

Cato said the scientists had advised that the likelihood of major explosions that would represent “a danger to any area other than the upper slopes of the volcano is considerably reduced,” The Vincentian Newspaper reported.

Premier Cato told the nation it was considered safe for all evacuees, except those who lived beyond the Rabacca Dry River in the northeast.

There were no remaining settlements on the northwestern flanks of the volcano after the deadly 1902 eruption swept those villages off the map.

But, Mr. Cato operated on the side of caution, saying that if a “resurgence of major violent activity” takes place, additional monitoring equipment would provide a greater chance of the danger warning period.

An official phasing out of evacuation camps began on Monday, June 11, 1979. This phasing out did not include evacuation camps housing people from north of the Rabacca Dry River.

Evacuees were provided with transportation in the form of buses and trucks.

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The first camps to be cleared out were those in Kingstown and Prospect, the June 15, 1979 edition of The Vincentian Newspaper reported.

The move out from camps at Marriaqua and Greggs followed.

Later in the year, evacuees from the north of the Rabacca Dry River started moving back home, on their own accord.

In August of 1979, people from north of the Rabacca Dry River who were still in camps in other parts of the country were told to return home.

In June 1979, Mr. Cato, who was the Premier, announced that the estimated damage caused by the volcanic eruptions was more than 14 million dollars. That figure did not include the widespread damage to agriculture which was the country’s main earner at that time.

Restoration of schools, community halls and other buildings used as camps stood at an estimated 1.5 million dollars.

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Repairs to schools and community halls in evacuated areas stood at $800,000.

Reinstatement of roads was estimated at 8 million dollars, and repairs to private dwellings was estimated at $4, 043, 000, a total of $14, 343,000, The Vincentian Newspaper reported.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines gained political independence from Britain on October 27, 1979. Prior to this, the title of the country’s head of government was Premier and not Prime Minister.

Robert Milton Cato called general elections on December 5, 1979, nearly six months after the eruptions of La Soufriere. He and his St. Vincent Labour Party won 11 of the 13 seats in the Parliament.

Cato is regarded as the father of the nation, having pushed strongly for the creation of an independent nation amidst the volcanic eruptions.

Mr. Cato, who was the first prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines died in 1997.

The 2021 explosive eruptions of La Soufrière have been considered larger than those of 1979.

Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves announced on May 6, less than a month after the first explosive eruption of La Soufrière, that people who evacuated from the Orange Zone, that is, communities below the Rabacca Dry River can return home.

The two exceptions are the Orange Zone communities of Chateaubelair and Fitz Hughes on the northwestern side of St. Vincent.

Dr. Gonsalves’ announcement of Cabinet’s decision was made on the advice of the scientists monitoring the volcano.

Today, many people are owners of private transportation and it is expected that people from the Orange Zones will facilitate their return and resettlement in their communities.

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