Montserrat prepares for evacuation

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The Independent Online
Britain's Caribbean colony of Montserrat is preparing for what could turn into a total evacuation after scientists warned that the Soufriere volcano now threatens two-thirds of the island.

As weeping residents packed their bags, Britain and the local government offered a "voluntary evacuation package" to those wishing to depart and said extra ferries would be laid on from the "safe zone" in the north. Two Royal Navy helicopters were also said to be on standy-by.

There are an estimated 4,000 people still on the island - from an original population of 11,000 - most of them now refugees and confined to 12 square miles and a couple of hamlets in the rugged north of the island. Few want to abandon what was until recently an island paradise but there simply are not enough places to stay in the northern area of craggy cliffs. "You may have to squeeze a bit," said Chief Minister Bertrand Osborne in a weekend radio broadcast.

The latest blow to the islanders, descendants of Irish immigrants and their slaves, came after the government ordered the evacuation of the central part of the island on Saturday, including the township of Salem. Those who had fled the capital, Plymouth, before it was buried under hot ash and rock two weeks ago, had built a new de facto capital in Salem, throwing up wooden shops, bars and other businesses in an attempt to recreate some form of normality.

"It makes the tears roll, I can tell you. It just breaks your heart to see these sweet people walking with their suitcases and cramming into churches," said Lonnie McArthur, a local resident, a volunteer teacher from Canada, herself now living on a campbed in a friend's bedroom. "My friend Selma, with four kids, was forced out of her home in Plymouth, then Cork Hill, now Salem. Now she's walking around looking for space to sleep on a church floor."

The government offer was vague as to how much assistance evacuees would get and appeared aimed at shipping people only to neighbouring Antigua, where they will still face problems finding shelter. It said no one would be forced to leave. Most evacuees would prefer to move to Britain but the British Government so far has not offered to pay their passage. Many lost their homes, businesses and belongings in the zone damaged by the volcano and cannot afford the trip.

They locked up their businesses on Saturday and drove or walked north, seeking space in relatives' homes, churches or giant military-style tents already packed with earlier refugees. One family was seen sleeping in an abandoned car by the roadside. Yesterday, some returned to pick up more belongings before going back to sleep in the rugged north, an area of only 12 square miles and a couple of hamlets.

The island's remaining banks and post office, which had already been moved into private homes, are now off limits, making everyday life impossible.

"The scientists say the volcano's activity is escalating and that it could show more violent and hazardous behaviour," said Clive Mansfield, spokesman for the British governor. "The pyroclastic flow [an avalanche of red-hot gas, ash and rock] could come down the Belham River valley to the sea, threatening Salem, Old Towne, Olveston, Flemings and Hope." Residents spoke of a widespread rumour that recent eruptions had destroyed the scientists' key warning devices, making future eruptions unpredictable.