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Volcano at twenty: Montserrat's rise from the ashes

In July 1995 a dormant volcano at the heart of the Caribbean island of Montserrat woke up, changing the lives of Montserratians forever. After twenty years of evacuation and rebuilding the government faces critical choices about how to ensure the island's economic survival.

There are different kinds of volcano and different kinds of eruption. There are lava domes, shield volcanoes, cinder domes and stratovolcanoes. Some ooze molten lava in slow, sticky rivers and tourists can wander safely along the side of the volcano to watch. Others erupt explosively and unpredictably, throwing debris high into the air or thundering down the volcano’s slopes. Still others blaze deadly paths with fast-moving, unseen fingers of red-hot gas.

Millions of years ago the Caribbean oceanic plate was forced to slide underneath the Atlantic plate, creating an angry friction that caused volcanoes to erupt in a long, graceful arc. The remains of these volcanoes became the tropical caribbean islands of the Lesser Antilles. As the subduction of the Atlantic plate continues, so too does seismic activity, and the region is frequently shaken by earthquakes. At irregular points throughout history long-dormant volcanoes have woken up and disgorged their contents, relieving the build up of friction and pressure thousands of metres below the earth’s surface.

The small caribbean island of Montserrat in the late twentieth century was idyllic, attracting visitors from around the world but avoiding mass tourism and maintaining its ‘local’ feel. Plymouth was a sleepy town of mostly wooden or stone buildings with a village atmosphere. Most of the island’s 11,000 inhabitants knew each other and lived simple lives; growing food, running shops or working for the government. Soufriere Hills was just a mountain, the bubbling hot springs were a tourist attraction and nobody noticed a few extra earth tremors.

On the afternoon of 18th July 1995, residents of Plymouth noticed a quiet roaring noise which they assumed was a distant transatlantic jet engine. But the sound persisted throughout the afternoon and was soon joined by the distinctive smell of sulphur and in some places small amounts of falling ash. Was the volcano which had been dormant for so many centuries finally waking up? It seemed inconceivable.

In the late evening the island’s British Governor Frank Savage (Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory) appealed for calm on Radio Montserrat but asked people to pack a bag in case it should be necessary to move them to the north of the island during the night. There followed tense days of confusion and worry as scientists from around the world descended on the island, scaling the mountain with their technical instruments and scurrying around to find the cause of the activity. Meanwhile ash spluttered from the volcano and fell like rain. The skittish began to leave the island but most seemed to trust the authorities and by day 12 it was even reported that the new volcanic activity was proving a tourist attraction.

As the humid tropical summer went on, people wanted answers. What did the future hold for Montserrat? Just how dangerous was the volcano and how long would it be dangerous for? Despite the frenetic activity of scientific teams, little information was forthcoming and it was stressed to the public that the scientists needed to take their time over testing and analysing data. To rush them would be counter-productive.

When the scientists did start to talk it was in another language. A language of seismology, volcanology and geology; seismic, phreatic, pyroclastic; vents, flows, dome growth; tremors, hybrid tremors, earthquake swarms, eruption columns. Not even the time frames were straightforward. At the beginning of August 1995 Chief Minister Rueben Meade said that any worsening of the situation could take days, weeks, or even months. Privately the scientists were in disarray. There was no consensus between them on what to expect from Soufriere Hills, and even less consensus between the British-appointed Governor and the government of Montserrat over what public action to take.

Evacuation

On the morning of Monday 21st August 1995 the inhabitants of Plymouth witnessed a terrifying sight. Rolling down the mountain was a huge black cloud, heading straight for them. Governor Savage was on his rear balcony and ordered his household indoors. What was in the cloud nobody knew and as it hit the homes of Plymouth the world turned black.

Rose Willock, the calming voice of Radio Montserrat, called the scientists as soon as she saw the cloud coming. They told her that it was “a phreatic eruption, more worrying than the first venting of 18th July, but not necessarily a threat to lives.” To her listeners, sitting terrified in their homes, the world inside and out as black as midnight, Rose translated the scientists’ words into something for them to take hold of.

I know you’re scared stiff but please don’t leave your homes.

“Okay everybody, listen up. I know you’re scared. That’s understandable and that’s okay. But I’ve just spoken to the scientists and they say this is a phreatic eruption, a combination of ash and steam. Don’t be afraid. I know you can’t help being afraid because we’ve never seen anything like this before. I know it’s very intense where you are. I know you can’t see anybody. Some of you might be at home alone. I know you’re scared stiff but please don’t leave your homes. If there’s somebody there with you, you may want to hold their hand and just stay together, talk to each other, reassure each other. Just stay where you are. It’s going to clear. I don’t know how soon but no one’s going to get hurt.”

Governor Savage had had enough of the uncertainty and when the cloud cleared he ordered evacuation of all residents south of the Belham valley. 8,000 people, more than 70% of the population, were uprooted and moved to the less-developed north of the island to live in tents, schools and churches, with no idea when or even if they would be allowed home.

November 1995 to September 1996

It turned out that ‘phreatic’ basically meant that the volcano was clearing its throat. The dirty ash clouds of the first weeks of activity subsided as Soufriere Hills found a clearer passage for its volcanic material. Pyroclastic material began to flow intermittently down the side of the volcano, channeled harmlessly into the ghauts that wrinkled its slopes. By late 1996, more than a year after the start of the eruption, Montserratians had learned to live with the volcano and had adopted the vocabulary of the scientists. Twice daily Radio Montserrat volcano reports talked with ease of “broad band tremors, hybrid earthquakes, rock fall signals, long period events and pyroclastic flows.”

While they mastered the jargon, many people could not come to terms with the uncertainty of their living conditions. Thousands had been evacuated and then returned several times, so at each evacuation they expected to go home sooner or later. The constantly changing designation of which areas were safe or unsafe, or somewhere in between, sent mixed signals to the general public.

September 1996 to June 24, 1997

Dome growth, dome collapse… a never ending cycle. Montserratians knew to watch the shape-shifting of the volcano’s peak carefully. The faster the growth, the more likely the collapse, and then any number of disastrous things could happen; pyroclastic flows, pyroclastic surges, explosive events. Until mid 1996 however, these were largely theoretical threats and activity had been confined to small flows and occasional ‘ashing’. The volcano had become an annoyance rather than a danger.

On 17th September 1996 there was a huge dome collapse and explosive eruption. The ash cloud, looking just like the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb, reached 14km into the sky and stones and ash rained down on the island. For the first time pyroclastic flow destroyed houses around the mountain. This marked the beginning of nearly a year of increasingly large and dangerous volcanic activity and the end of residents’ hopes of going home.

But still some people returned to their homes and land in the exclusion zone. Since April 3 1996 they had been sleeping on cots in hot, crowded shelters and churches. The better shelters resembled wooden barracks, while others were just tents. Privacy was attempted with sheets hung from ceilings. Many people preferred to risk their lives rather than lose their dignity. Some people too felt they had no choice. Their livelihoods were in the south and they needed to farm in order to live. Still others preferred to leave their fate in God’s hands. If it was their time He would take them, if not He would save them.

The scientists and the governor’s office were at a loss to get across their fears about just how dangerous the volcano could be. The people had come to live with it and their government seemed to agree with them. Perhaps the scientists were just overreacting. So the borders of the exclusion zone were porous and the checkpoints were flexible. People came and went as they pleased.

Pyroclastic flow vs. pyroclastic surge

I have visited Pompei and seen the excavated remains of Romans prostrated in positions of apparent agony, usually on their backs with arms and legs partly bent, fingers curling in as if clutching at life itself. I imagined the agonising final minutes of their lives as molten lava rolled over them, preserving their screams and agonies forever. But it was not molten lava which killed the Romans of Pompei in their thousands, it was a pyroclastic surge. Previously referred to as nuées ardentes (glowing clouds), these surges are fast-moving clouds of hot gases and lighter particles that travel faster and further than the heavier material and at temperatures as high as 500ºC, incinerate everything in their path.

The raised arms with curled fingers were not protective gestures but the result of a flash-roasting. When gases at such temperatures hit the human body the clothes and hair ignite and the body starts to burn. A couple of breaths burn the throat and lungs and in shock all the organs shut down and consciousness is lost. Death is virtually instant.

Unlike heavier pyroclastic flows, these surges move so fast that they can even travel uphill, and are not confined by the contours of the landscape. Montserratians were becoming familiar with the volcano’s pattern of behaviour. Many of those venturing inside the exclusion zone believed that they knew the danger areas - the valleys and ghauts down which pyroclastic material would flow. It was hard for them to visualise something so different from what they had been watching and living with for so long. It was just more scientific jargon.

A fatal day

At 3am on the 25th June 1997 seismometers at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) suddenly started to register regular, large tremors. Local resident David Lea, on the MVO night shift, said it looked like birthing contractions.

At 7am seismometers were still showing major activity but little could be seen of the volcano through the wet fog. Radio Montserrat began to broadcast continuously

All people inside the exclusion zone, including Bethel, Brambles Village, Whites Yard and Spanish Point, should leave immediately.

At 1245 seismometers began registering almost constant activity.

That morning Delia and James Ponde were working in their field in Farrell’s Yard. They knew that they shouldn’t be in the exclusion zone but they needed the money from selling the vegetables that they grow. They had arrived early in the morning and taken the usual precautions; turning their pick-up to face the road and leaving the keys in the ignition. For once, however, they had forgotten to take the radio into the fields, and with the heavy fog over the volcano they don’t notice the growing activity. Their son Keithley Ponde was higher up in the fields tending his potato crop with only a donkey for transport.

Harry Lewis, his wife Isolyn, her sister Celestine and their friend Melville were

also in the fields of Farrell’s Yard, not far from the Pondes, harvesting carrots.

At 12:57pm the dome of the volcano collapsed over the north crater wall, causing the first pyroclastic flow down mosquito ghaut.

The Pondes were about to leave the fields after a hard morning’s work when Delia looked back at the mountain and saw the pyroclastic flow heading down the mountain towards them. She shouted at her husband that they had to go and they jumped into their pickup.

As Harry, Isolyn, Celestine and Melville realised what was happening Harry started running to where he had left his truck. He shouted to the others to run to the main road, where he would pick them up. As soon as he got into his truck he drove as fast as he could down the hill, passing Delia and James Ponde going in the opposite direction. But his wife, sister-in-law and friend were not there. Harry started driving up and down the road, searching and calling for them.

At 1pm more volcanic material from deeper inside the lava dome was ejected and a second, larger avalanche roared down the valley.

Isolyn, Celestine and Melville hit the main road running fast. With yet another huge bang and the sight of more pyroclastic flow thundering down the mountain they decide to keep on running rather than wait for Harry to get to them. They ran north, away from the volcano and up Windy Hill, trying to get to higher ground. As the pyroclastic flow got closer they decided to shelter and crouch behind one of the buildings in Streatham village, praying for safety.

From their vantage point on Windy Hill, James and Delia Ponde saw the second pyroclastic flow take the valley. The land they were working just minutes before was completely engulfed in pyroclastic flow.

At 1:08pm a third eruption catapulted a column of ash over 13,500 metres into the air and a huge pyroclastic flow came down the volcano.

The path already laid by previous flows allowed this one to move faster and further, and when the flow hit a sharp bend in the valley the lighter mixture of gases and ash known as a pyroclastic surge, jumped the wall of the valley and headed straight down across the Central Corridor, across Farrell’s Yard, Streatham and Molyneaux.

Delia and James felt the hot wind rushing across the land just below them and saw the hilltop around them begin to burn. They did not know where their son was. Isolyn and Celestine, seeing that the second flow has missed them, started to make another run for it but Melville stayed crouched behind the house sheltering them. The pyroclastic surge hit them before they even knew what was happening.

Minutes after the third and final eruption helicopter rescues began. Delia, James and others on Windy Hill were winched to safety as the hill around them burned, but Keithly Ponde was nowhere to be seen. The following day teams found his remains at the bottom of Windy Hill, beside his donkey. Celestine, Isolyn and Melville were also found, limbs bent, fingers curled, exactly as the fossils of Pompeii. They were only 140 metres from safety.

In all 19 people died in the three eruptions over just 20 minutes and more people were badly burned. June 25th 1997 was a turning point for Montserrat. The British government finally realised that the volcano was a serious problem and that they needed to help resettle the population more permanently. The Montserratian government acknowledged that they needed to take the scientists more seriously and the scientists blinkingly opened their eyes to the human element of their studies.

In the twenty years since the volcano woke up again, June 25th 1997 was the only fatal day. The island was divided into zones, which could be opened and closed according to threat from the volcano. Access to exclusion zones became tightly controlled and transgression was punished. There were several more significant eruptions in the following years, but there has been nothing since 2010. Even the ashings have stopped. In 2014 the government reopened part of the exclusion zone which had not in the end suffered from pyroclastic flow, and there is hope that the worst might be over, volcano-wise.

Rebuilding Montserrat

Economically and socially Montserrat has fought back against this natural disaster. The easiest solution (for Britain) would have been to resettle the entire population and leave the island to the elements. But Montserratians are fiercely proud of their culture and individual identity, and even for those who did leave, most live in hope of one day returning.

Huge developments have been made in making the formerly sparsely inhabited north of the island into the new heart of the nation. Building work continues apace, there’s a new airport and port, and since the calming of volcanic activity in the last 5 years, house prices have begun to boom and house-building projects abound.

All of the above has been accomplished with more than £420 million of British Aid but also through the dogged persistence and hard work of those residents who remained on Montserrat throughout much of the crisis and the island’s rebuilding.

Although on the surface all seems to be going well however, there is discontent and discord over the future. The relationship between the Government of Montserrat and the British Government’s Department for International Development (DfID) which administers the aid is strained at best, and there have been many mistakes made on both sides in the past 20 years. There is also some evidence and plenty of rumours of incompetence and/or corruption on both sides going back many years, which have gone largely uninvestigated due to a lack of political will on either side.

Most of the recent allegations have been leveled at the Montserrat Development Corporation (MDC) – a private company set up to handle DfID money and run Montserrat’s regeneration. The running of the MDC was a lesson in mismanagement and worse. This has not been fully investigated but the MDC was recently shut down by (fairly) newly-elected Premier Donaldson Romeo.

New leadership, new direction?

Premier Romeo is a relative newcomer to the political scene in Montserrat. The office has for decades been handed around a select few families and he is fresh to politics, previously standing only in opposition. It is hard not to like or trust Romeo, and he is widely popular. His manner and approach are open, friendly to all and he appeals to people from all social strata and nationalities with his moral stance and dignified but approachable demeanor.

It is now nine months since Romeo took office, and while the Premier himself remains popular, it is not clear whether the rest of the government are working as a cohesive whole under his leadership and direction, or to their own agendas. While the developments mentioned earlier indicate a real change in Montserrat’s fortunes, if one looks closer it is easy to see that without greater clarity of direction and the enforcement of clear and productive policies, the island will continue on a steady path of decline.

Here’s the main problem: The population is too small. With only 5,000 or so inhabitants, only half of whom are of working age, how can the government raise enough money to run a country and pay the 910 public sector workers whose salaries alone total between £16-18 million a year?

The unreliability of British aid

The answer, currently, is to depend on British aid money, administered by DfID. Montserrat has received £420 million from the UK since 1997 and continues to receive £26 million a year. While Britain is responsible for Montserrat as an Overseas Territory, an assumption that British aid will continue at this level is a dangerous one, based as it is on a moral argument.

18 years of academic study, government and NGO work in the fields of international politics and development have taught me that money is never distributed according to need or right, but by an unpredictable combination of political and societal whim and economic self-interest.

Last year I sat in front of a DfID representative in Iraq after I visited vast refugee camps crammed with hundreds of thousands of terrified Yezidis who had fled the ISIS onslaught and now faced dying from cold in the winter. He told me that although he had a budget of several million pounds, he wasn’t allowed to spend it yet because they (DfID) were waiting for the Iraqi government to take some responsibility for the situation themselves. He said this from a chair in the lobby of the luxury hotel in which he had lived for several weeks without even having visited the camps.

There was no hint of irony in the demand of this British official, whose government had exploited and manipulated Iraq in the 20th century and invaded and left it broken in the 21st, that the Iraqis take responsibility for their own problems. He further confided that use of the money was dictated by politicians, who follow public opinion, which was certainly not in favour at that point of having any more to do with Iraq.

Examples such as this show that a purely moral argument for British reparations to caribbean nations for slavery will go nowhere. Britain has wronged so many nations and peoples in the past 300 years that it simply cannot afford to open the flood gates to any one historical claim, and there is no international precedent of reparations payments for pre-20th century events.

But it is the role of politicians, and therefore public opinion, in DfID’s allocation of resources that should worry Montserrat the most. Just read the comments section of a recent Daily Mail article and you will see the potential for the right wing press to write something one-sided and inflammatory to ignite the passions of a British public suffering from austerity, who are increasingly turning on aid and immigration as vents for their frustration. British payments of £5,200 a year to each citizen of what appears to be a tropical island paradise could be easily misinterpreted by a public who are being told that their own benefits and public services must be drastically cut.

The risk of a substantial reduction in British aid to Montserrat should not be underestimated, and it would be a naïve or self-interested politician who based all of Montserrat’s future plans on an increase in such aid, or even continuation of the current level, even while they continue to demand it.

All of this makes the reparations-focused approach of some parts of the Montserrat establishment seem hopelessly out of touch. When asked in October what his approach to improving the self-sustainability of Montserrat was, a newly elected member of the Government of Montserrat told a group of non-Montserratians in private that in his view the government didn’t need to do anything to make the country self-sustainable - it just had to get as much money as possible out of the British government, indefinitely, because they owed Montserrat due to slavery. At the time it was thought that the politician was exaggerating in order to provoke his audience, but I have since heard watered-down versions of his philosophy dropped into many situations, to great public approval.

The approach by this politician is fundamentally irresponsible: Rather than alert the Montserratian people to the true risks, opportunities and choices that the future presents, it is a short-term garnering of public approval at the expense of the long-term welfare of the nation.

The way forward

If British money can’t be relied upon, what is the way forward? Premier Romeo is promoting job creation and foreign investment. In fact, job creation on a scale necessary to keep employable Montserratians on island and encourage others to return, requires a substantial effort to encourage inward investment. The main way to achieve this however, is not through the plush advertising campaigns and corporate schmoozing of the now defunct MDC, or even Premier Romeo’s current efforts to promote Montserrat through speeches overseas. It lies first and most fundamentally in demonstrating that Montserrat can support and protect the investments of overseas companies once they arrive on island.

In recent years too many companies and individuals who have tried to set up business enterprises in Montserrat have been driven away after their initiatives failed due to either lack of support from the government, impenetrable and nonsensical bureaucratic hurdles or at worst active obstruction by individuals resentful of outsiders taking opportunities seen as reserved for Montserratians. Foreign business owners feel unprotected by a haphazard police force and a lack of follow-through of support by many sectors of government.

In one act of substantial damage to a foreign-owned business on island last year, the police failed to investigate the incident for 6 weeks, despite many requests by the business’s owners. By the time the police investigated, after direct appeals to the Chief of Police and the Governor, the physical evidence was no longer useable and the business owners were unable to pursue compensation from the company or individual who caused the damage. When complaining to the Government of Montserrat about this lack of investigation and support on this issue, one owner of this business was told by the Minister responsible “what do you expect? This isn’t Europe.”

The owners of this business are now reluctantly considering relocating their business to another island. Their business model was working, they intended to expand and to train and employ local people in a new technology, but they completely lost trust in the will and ability of the government to protect them in even the most basic way. This is not an isolated example, and every such investment or business failure represents lost revenue and potentially lost jobs for Montserratians, and a disincentive for future investors.

New economic and educational initiatives

A significant ray of hope in Premier Romeo’s government is the hard-working but understated Delmaude Ryan, Minister for Education, Health and Social Services, and Deputy Premier. Her forward-thinking initiatives, especially in the area of education, are already yielding results. She has been working to create an on-site farm for practical agricultural training at the secondary school, financed by an obscure international development fund. She is implementing her vision with a mixture of public and private sector, and Montserratians and non-Montserratians. Her lack of discrimination and focus on the end result will enable the youth of Montserrat to develop an understanding of both traditional and modern skills in agriculture, a key area of development and employment.

Ryan also has a nascent plan for an apprenticeship scheme, which would require companies who set up in Montserrat to engage Montserratian apprentices, harnessing any foreign investment to provide valuable vocational training for increasing numbers of Montserratians in a variety of sectors.

Such schemes may appear less glamorous than the building of a multi-million dollar basketball stadium or commissioning countless consultancy reports that produce alien visions of a luxury-Montserrat of the future. But they are critically important to rebuilding Montserrat, more slowly, but more effectively, from the ground up.

What about DfID?

It is possible to argue with many of the decisions of DfID (for example removing a ferry subsidy that reduced day-trip tourists from 22,000 a year before 2005 to near insignificance) but in the end it is a geographically distant entity whose policies are dictated by a mixture of politicians beholden to the whim of public opinion, and civil servants who remain in their posts for three years at most and then move on. For this reason it seems rather futile to battle against them, or even to expect too much long-term, visionary thinking.

The future relies instead on the actions of those on Montserrat itself. The vision and integrity of politicians like Donaldson Romeo and Delmaude Ryan give hope that Montserrat will become more open to outsiders, particularly those who have the will and means to invest financially in Montserrat’s future. This will in turn create an environment encouraging more Montserratian refugees to return home, bringing with them revitalising skills and energy. Their contribution to rebuilding Montserrat will ensure the survival of a unique and invaluable society.

The historical part of this article relied heavily upon Montserrat resident David Lea’s video documentaries, Montserratian Cathy Buffonge’s written accounts and Phil Davison’s book ‘Volcano in Paradise: Death and Survival on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat’

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