World

Paradise lost

A volcano ravages a Caribbean isle

NOMI MORRIS September 1 1997
World

Paradise lost

A volcano ravages a Caribbean isle

NOMI MORRIS September 1 1997

Paradise lost

World

A volcano ravages a Caribbean isle

NOMI MORRIS

As she sits on the deck of a Canadian friend’s vacation home, Montserrat native Winifred Saunders has trouble getting the image out of her mind. On June 25, she watched a billowing sea of steam, gases and rock rise into the air before it swept down a mountainside, obliterating the villages of her childhood within seven minutes—taking several of her former neighbors with it. Terrible as it was, the scene was breathtakingly beautiful, “like a huge mushroom cloud opening up,” she recalls. There was also an eerie quiet as the Soufriere Hills volcano unfurled its devastating power on the tiny Caribbean isle. “No one heard it coming,” Saunders says. “Most of the people who died lived in the valley. They never had a chance.”

The bodies of the 19 victims—including an infant girl—cannot be retrieved from beneath a hardening shroud of hot ash. Several villages are gone, and a third of the 100-square-kilometre British colony is covered in gravelly dust. Last week, as scientists warned that a cataclysmic eruption could come at any time—or not at all—Britain began a voluntary evacuation among the island’s 4,000 or so remaining residents. But many Montserratans were angry about resettlement terms, and many others were determined to stay, driven by a tenacious dedication to their island. Days before the June 25 explosion, Winnie Saunders’s aunt tried to get her neighbor, Virgie Sutton, to leave their village of Farms for a safer area. Virgie, in her 70s and looking after an ailing husband, would have none of it. “I’m not going into a shelter,” she replied. “I’m staying right here. If I die it is God’s will.” The onrushing volcanic ash entombed the couple in their house.

That day was a turning point for what used to be a lush Shangri-La in the northeast Caribbean. Many who had hoped to wait out the eruptions gave up. ‘To see people you know killed, that woke us up,”

said Rose Tonge, 43, who has taken refuge with her sister in Scarborough, Ont., because the volcanic dust was aggravating her nineyear-old son’s asthma. ‘You don’t think it can happen to you.” The worst did happen to 73-year-old Beryl Farrell, mother of Finóla Grant, a nurse at Scarborough General Hospital who immigrated to Canada 25 years ago. Grant, 46, called her mother to arrange for her to fly to Toronto in early July. But the volcano took her life on June 25. “My mother didn’t want to leave her family and friends,” Grant told Maclean’s sadly. Now, her sister has come, one of more than 30 Montserratans who are staying with family in Canada, most in the Toronto area. A local association is lobbying the government to allow the visitors to work and put their children in school.

Back on Montserrat, demonstrations broke out as authorities again reduced the size of the so-called safe zone in the north where the 4,000 remaining residents have crowded in. There were 11,000 people on the island in 1995, when the volcano began to smoke and spew for the first time since British colonizers arrived in 1632. After Britain’s Royal Navy arrived early last week to transport those who wanted to move to neighboring islands, the HMS Liverpool waited for days with no takers. Hundreds of people protested their deteriorating living conditions and what many considered a miserly resettlement package of $5,560 per person, finally approved by London. But Montserrat Chief Minister Bertrand Osborne was forced to resign after only nine months in office, his ministers no longer trusting him to lead them out of the crisis. “They thought I am not strong enough to deal with the British government,” Osborne said. “And they don’t like the manner in which I do it.”

He was replaced by local lawyer and legislator David Brandt, who has a tough task ahead. The former capital, Plymouth, was destroyed by the volcano earlier this month, and as of last week the temporary capital Salem is off limits in the evenings. The economy

has nearly ground to a halt. Even the area’s rare fish are threatened, with 50 per cent of the island’s pristine reefs wiped out. The latest misfortune follows a major rebuilding effort earlier in the decade, after the island was hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Now, as then, many Montserratans say they want to stay and rebuild, or to return as soon as possible. More than half of those displaced have gone only as far as nearby Antigua and St. Kitts. Another 400 signed up for the navy evacuation that began last weekend. About half the remaining residents are expected to leave soon, some bitter that London will not pay their airfare to Britain or grant them citizenship.

Many Montserratans say they do not know who to blame more— the British, whose response seemed too little too late, or their own leaders, who many say failed to push hard enough for compensation and new housing. There has been an “ineptness and lack of action and vision by both governments, up until now,” said a local entrepreneur who asked for anonymity. “I understand that people are disgruntled, but we have acted very quickly and reasonably,” said Britain’s International Development Secretary Clare Short. There are plans to build a new port, airport and tourist area in the north. But Montserrat newspaper editor Bennette Roach says little British money has yet arrived.

Many homeowners in the north have taken in families from the devastated south and east. Still, 1,300 people are crammed into makeshift lodgings. “Some have been living in shelters for 18 months. They thought they were coming for a few weeks,” said Janet Wilkins of London, Ont, who flew to Montserrat with medicines, flashlights and other supplies.

Wilkins’s sister, Agnes Lempriere, lives permanently on Montserrat. “Since the volcano started, I have moved eight times,” she says. “But I will be the last one to leave Montserrat’s beautiful shores.”

That sentiment is heard often, especially from those whose homes are still standing or who have a major investment that they hope to recoup. Detroit native Susan Goldin-Miller and her husband used to run a thriving business taking about 50

cruise ship passengers a day on mountain-bike tours of the island. “It was 70 per cent downhill and they were back in time for lunch on the ship,” said Goldin-Miller. But no cruise ships have come since last April and the island’s two hotels have closed. The Royal Bank of Canada—one of two banks on the island—has seven staff serving the public from a private home, having lost 80 per cent of its property and 18 of its employees on Montserrat. ‘We have decided to stay,” said Nigel Napier-Andrews, spokesman for Caribbean operations. “Of course, we aren’t lending any money right now.”

Some money will come from a fund-raising concert next month at London’s Royal Albert Hall, organized by former Beatles producer George Martin and featuring rock stars Sting and Elton John, who had recorded at Martin’s now-buried Air studio on the island. Meanwhile, the hundreds of Montserrat holdouts listen to the radio for daily updates on the volcano and its pyroclastic flow, the silent, grey, 1,000° C chemical and mineral cocktail that moves at 150 km/h, faster than the fiery red lava seen on Hawaiian volcanoes. Mountain biker Goldin-Miller recalls the chunks of pumice that hit her on the head a few weeks ago: “It’s that porous rock you buff your feet with.” The dome at Soufriere Hills, a crust of lava that forms over the mountaintop, is already 900 m high. A mere five per cent of it broke off on June 25, the worst eruption to date. Scientists measure the volcano’s every hiccup, but admit they have never seen one like it before. It may blow its top with apocalyptic intensity, sputter along for another few years, or simply go back to sleep.

Winnie Saunders feels like a survivor. She cannot even visit the graves of her father and grandparents: Bethel Methodist Church and its cemetery are blanketed. “If I leave Montserrat now, it will be a betrayal,” she says. “There is no one left of my family.” When the village disappeared, Saunders’s house somehow stayed standing while those around it collapsed. She views it as a sign that she must remain as a witness to the past. “I believe there will be an end to this,” she says, “and I will be here.” □