Volcano is boss: Montserrat after the Soufrière Hills eruption

When the Soufrière Hills Volcano erupted in July 1995, the people of Montserrat didn’t know their whole way of life was about to change forever. A decade later, Mark Meredith visits Montserrat and finds a still-rumbling mountain, an island rebuilding itself- and volcano tourism

“There’s no escaping the sense of loss”. Photograph by Mark MeredithThe clock at the Plymouth courthouse, stopped at seven minutes past twelve. Photograph by Mark MeredithThe steeple of St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Plymouth. Photograph by Mark Meredith

“It came upon us very suddenly one night — 18 July, 1995. It sounded in Plymouth as though a big jet was landing. It was roaring,” recalls Erica Gibbs of the fiery mountain featured on the labels of the Montserrat Volcano Rum on the counter in front of her.

“PYROCLASTIC FLOW” read the t-shirts draped over the table. Erica, an English resident of Montserrat for 45 years, was selling volcano literature and explosive reminders of Montserrat to vulcanologists in the shade of the entrance to the ash-enveloped Vue Point Hotel, which looks upon the volcano.

Out in the grainy morning sunshine, ash was being whipped up by gusts of wind, blowing the powdery grit off the hotel roof onto the plastic wrap on the sandwiches laid out for the mid-morning coffee break of the “Soufrière Hills Volcano — 10 Years On” scientific conference. The hotel swimming pool had turned uninvitingly murky, while, at the poolside terrace bar, the staff were frantically dusting counters in a futile effort to keep the grey tide at bay.

Like me, the scientists could hardly believe their luck. Exactly ten years after it first erupted, the volcano was heralding the arrival of over a hundred experts from around the globe with a “phreatic” eruption of steam and ash, and we had ringside seats.

The previous night a “small explosion” had occurred in the volcano, wind carrying the ash northwards, blanketing much of the remaining third of the island still deemed safe to live in, the unrestricted northern zone. It was like waking up after a snowfall to find a world transformed: sounds and colours muted, but by fine, drab dust cutting visibility to yards; adults and children walking the streets with masks; everyone scraping, sweeping, hosing the ash from roads, roofs, cars, and gardens. And as they cleaned, the wind would gust and the ash would swirl again.

Earlier that morning, while negotiating unfamiliar mountain roads in the volcanic pea-souper, I met Claris Skerrit in the community of Salem, a mask strapped around her face, brushing piles of ash from the driveway and grey garden of her pretty house. Resident in England for 35 years, she had retired to her home island only for the volcano to welcome her back with ten years of misery. It was too much for her.

“I though it had gone quiet,” she lamented. “I have to pay to clean my roof, and I clean it only last week. Looks like I’ll have to move again. This ash, I can’t cope with it,” she said, wiping watery eyes with the backs of her dusty hands.

Heading south to the conference venue of the Vue Point Hotel, the ash seemed centimetres deep. Upscale homes and holiday villas were deserted or boarded up, while gardens had been shorn of their Caribbean colours. An area once the hub of the island’s lucrative villa tourism industry had become, like two-thirds of Montserrat, a ghost town. The only signs of life were at the hotel, sitting on a hill directly above the deadly lahars (mudflows) of the Belham River Valley, the boundary of the Exclusion Zone — as close to the Soufrière Hills Volcano as anyone is allowed to live.

During the coffee break, one delegate told me this ashfall was a “small event”, as though the volcano had “swallowed a bad prawn”. Previously it has belched loudly with satisfaction, showering volcanic rocks on houses, spreading ash many inches thick, collapsing roofs.

The conference was organised by the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) and the Seismic Research Unit (SRU) of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. Much has been learned about the volcano in the last ten years, but not enough to know if it will erupt again with the devastation it has already displayed. “It’s not behaving itself,” said one scientist of the mountain that devoured 19 people and a country’s future.

It was as though the mountain was mocking the scientists huddled in the air-conditioned conference room. “Deliberate all you like,” it seemed to be saying, burping ash clouds for their benefit on its birthday.

The MVO, staffed by the British Geological Survey and scientists from the SRU in Trinidad, organise tours of the observatory for anyone who wants to see the awesome results an angry volcano can deliver — close up. It sits just inside the “safe zone”, high above Salem and the devastated Belham River Valley. From here, scientists measure the volcano’s every convulsion with state-of-the-art equipment: lasers that read its bowel movements and instruments that gauge its breath. They tramp into the bush of the Exclusion Zone to place and read their instruments.

You cannot explore Montserrat’s capital, Plymouth, unless the police let you, or you are part of a special MVO tour, like ours. To reach Plymouth you must cross the Belham Valley, a dangerous place, subject to torrents of mud and debris brought down the ruined mountain by rain. The bridge is buried, and we drive across a stark wasteland of dried mud, ash, boulders, and dead trees.

On the ground at Plymouth, the silence, sulphur, and desolation of the ruined capital are overwhelming. No people died here, as the capital was finally evacuated in 1996, but crunching about upon this hot, hard, monochrome desert, it’s painfully obvious that history most certainly did. Standing at the top of a church steeple, or crouching next to the clock just beneath the roof of the courthouse that stopped at seven minutes past twelve, there’s no escaping the sense of loss.

As for the volcano, it had grown weary of scientists, journalists, and cameramen picking over its prize, and told us so. It exploded, somewhere in its bowels, and the black ash rose up and out of its ugly mouth and down the slope towards us, sending us anxiously packing as grit stung our faces and sulphur shortened our breath.

Ten years can seem much longer when you are living next to a large and unpredictable active volcano; especially when you are sharing your space on an island just 16 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide. “Everyone’s a hero, or heroine,” said the former British governor Frank Savage of those Montserratians who stayed or returned. Savage was addressing a public meeting in Brades’ Pentecostal church on the economic impact of the crisis. When the volcano blew in 1995, he was governor.

Savage had arrived on what was the last flight into Montserrat — until July this year, when the new Geralds Airport opened — with his wife Veronica. Minutes later, airport staff and MVO scientists speedily evacuated the airport.

“We came through the door of the terminal lounge to see this enormous pyroclastic flow rolling down the hillside . . . there was no mistaking this was the real thing,” Savage recounts in journalist Polly Pattullo’s excellent account of the Montserrat tragedy, Fire from the Mountain.

All that can be seen of the old airport today is the very end of the runway, painted white stripes on black tarmac disappearing under a vast blanket of grey and brown volcanic detritus and mud, studded with the odd clump of stubborn greenery. The desolation stretches away along the coast, filling in the steep valleys where rural communities once lived and farmed.

On the day Frank Savage and hundreds of Montserratians cheated death, 25 June, 1997, 19 people were burned alive in the scalding flows and gaseous surges, most dying in the vicinity of the Tar River Valley where we stood. I didn’t know then of Savage’s escape from the area he was now revisiting. If, like me, he was anxious in this lonely, ominous place, he didn’t show it. He hoped Montseratians in exile could return home. But he wondered where the jobs and housing would come from to attract them back.

How about volcano tourism? I suggested. After all, where else in the Caribbean, or the world, can you experience something like Plymouth? Great potential, he agreed and, almost on cue, a helicopter swept over us towards the volcano and entombed capital. I told him we had seen one circling us there that morning. “It’s coming from Antigua,” said Savage, adding that the helicopter was also bypassing any benefits that might accrue directly to Montserrat through volcano tourism.

In the Caribbean, the adventurous traveller is spoiled for choice when it comes to volcanoes. They come in all shapes and sizes: extinct, dormant, and active; undersea ones like “Kick ’em Jenny” off Grenada; twenty-foot-high miniatures of oozing, cold mud in south Trinidad; a boiling lake in Dominica; and the “world’s only drive-through volcano” in St Lucia. In the Caribbean arc of fire — the necklace of volcanic islands stretching from Grenada to Saba — there are “more than 15 volcanoes that could become active,” according to the MVO.

There have been many eruptions in the Lesser Antilles since 1900, most notably in 1902 in Martinique, when the Mont Pelée volcano overlooking the smart capital of St Pierre, the “Paris of the Antilles”, exploded without warning, incinerating 30,000 inhabitants in a couple of minutes. But no volcano has displayed the protracted and cruel refusal of Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills to go back to sleep. Ten years and counting, and the impact of the ongoing volcano crisis is inescapable in this tiny British Overseas Territory.

Today in Montserrat, according to Chief Minister John Osborne, there are just 17 square kilometres of land space left in which to develop their country all over again. Everything that really mattered in Montserrat lay south of the pointed peaks of the beautiful and protective Centre Hills: most of the people, the capital of Plymouth, farms on the best agricultural land, the economic mainstay of villa tourism and growing cruise ship arrivals, a medical school responsible for thirty per cent of the island’s entire GDP — like the landscape, the economy was laid waste.

In contrast, the north was an underdeveloped and sparsely populated area. Here, there are no fertile contours sweeping gently down to the sea, but sheer cliff faces and hills plunging to the ocean, with a sprinkling of sheltered bays. Future housing will depend on steep slopes and bluffs, and the north can feel exposed. The vegetation is scrubby, compared with the exuberant rainforest further south.

It is here in the north that most people live now. In 1997, the population had dropped to just 2,726 people from over 10,000 in 1995, though (like the economy) it has recovered somewhat, to about 4,500 today. Whether more people will return to Montserrat, or decide to leave, depends on the mood of the volcano.

Since the beginning of 2005, the MVO has recorded continuous volcanic activity. There have been the ash-venting episodes, and “small” 20,000-foot plumes, numerous earthquake “swarms” (many quakes close together or overlapping), and a pyroclastic flow in the Tar River Valley in June.

British MVO director Dr Sue Loughlin is, arguably, the most important person in Montserrat. Everyone from the governor and the Department for International Development in London to the Executive Council of the Montserrat government and, especially, anyone living south of the Centre Hills, listens when she has something important to say; or they should.

Loughlin attempted to allay the concerns of anxious Montserratians in Brades’ Pentecostal church. The chairman of the meeting had asked if it was safe to continue living in Montserrat. Loughlin wished she could truly tell them that the volcano would stop misbehaving. But she couldn’t. Admitting that scientists “didn’t really understand” the volcano, she tried to reassure the audience: “It is possible to live and develop beside an active volcano. Millions of people do it all over the world.”

I asked a Jamaican, one of many different Caribbean nationals working in my hotel, Tropical Mansion Suites — Montserrat’s newest and only hotel north of the sometimes ashy Vue Point Hotel — what she thought of living near such a volcano. She reached into her handbag and withdrew an open air ticket and her passport.

The current governor of Montserrat, Deborah Barnes Jones — the first female governor in British history — stressed the need for private investment to “complement government initiatives”. Barnes Jones told me villa tourism and ecotourism were the way forward. Volcano tourism would come “down the road”. The “north was safe”, scientists having studied “worst case scenarios”, she said. It was “on that basis that we are encouraging investment”.

However, as Montserrat politician and poet Howard Fergus once wrote of nature’s fearsome weaponry: “volcano is boss man, only one in its class . . .”

 

GETTING THERE

By air: WinAir (888-255-6889; www.fly-winair.com) daily flights from Antigua; from there, BWIA offers direct flights to several Caribbean, North American, and European destinations.

By sea: high-speed ferry from Antigua twice daily

ACCOMMODATION

Tropical Mansion Suites Hotel (664-491-8767; www.tropicalmansion.com)
Vue Pointe Hotel (664-491-5210; www.vuepointe.com)

FURTHER INFORMATION

Montserrat Volcano Observatory (664-491-5647; mvomail@mvo.ms; www.mvo.ms)
Montserrat Tourist Board (664-491-2230; www.visitmontserrat.com)