Volcano: Fury erupts over lost Montserrat warning

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Scientists warned the British government 10 years ago that Montserrat's volcano was still active and would erupt again. Their predictions were ignored. The island's people were never told that they were living in a potential disaster zone, Fran Abrams writes, and the burial of the report may have cost UK taxpayers tens of millions of pounds.

The opening sentence of the report handed to the governor of Montserrat and to the island's government in 1987 was blunt.

"Soufriere Hills volcano is active and will erupt again. It is a potential threat to many of the people that live in southern Montserrat," it read.

The report, while stressing that the eruption could be a long time coming, suggested that important public utilities should be moved out of the capital, Plymouth, which would be extremely vulnerable when it did.

Two years later, the island was devastated by Hurricane Hugo. The governments of Britain and of Montserrat, which is a British dependency, were presented with an opportunity to address the problem. Instead, they spent almost pounds 20m rebuilding the island's main hospital, government headquarters, schools and headquarters where they had been before.

This week, Baroness Symons promised to try to find out what happened to the United Nations-sponsored report by Professor Geoffrey Wadge of the University of Reading, and Michael Isaacs of the Seismic Research Unit in Trinidad. A Foreign Office spokesman suggested yesterday that the report would routinely have been passed on to officials in London, although he added that this would have been the governor's decision. Christopher Turner, the then governor of Montserrat, could not be contacted for comment.

The co-ordinator of the Montserrat Action Committee, MAC '89, Janice Panton, said yesterday that it should have been publicised.

"I grew up on the island with the view that the volcano was dormant. It had been dormant for 400 years. If you are living with an active volcano you should know.

"It should have been given to the people who were building houses there. Then if it had been dismissed at least you could say it was dismissed with knowledge," she said.

Jenny Tonge, the Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park, read about the report in a Christian Aid leaflet produced last year. When she asked the House of Commons library for a copy, she found that it did not have one.

"What the hell had been going on that allowed tens of millions of pounds to be spent in an area that was known to be unsafe. The last government need to be called to give evidence to find out why that money was wasted," she said.

Britain gave pounds 3m for essential repairs immediately after Hurricane Hugo and followed it up in 1991 with a further pounds 16.8m.

The money was used to rebuild and expand the Glendon Hospital near Plymouth, to repair schools and public buildings, and to provide a safe water supply. Plymouth is now uninhabitable, along with the rebuilt hospital which had never fully opened.

Since 1995 Britain has committed itself to spending pounds 45.8m on emergency aid to the island.

David Taylor, who was governor between 1990 and 1993, oversaw much of the post- hurricane rebuilding. He said he had never heard of the report until he read Christian Aid's leaflet in 1996. "I haven't the slightest idea what became of it. It's possible that it was in the governor's office and was blown away during the hurricane. A lot of the governor's files disappeared into the sea," he said.

Mr Taylor was unsure whether things would have been different if the report had been published. "It's very difficult to judge - it is both hypothetical and with hindsight," he said.

Baroness Chalker, a Foreign Office minister, was deputy foreign secretary from 1987 until 1989 and minister for overseas aid from 1989 until May this year. Although she was not responsible for Montserrat in 1987, she dealt with the aftermath of the hurricane and the rebuilding programme. She said she had never been shown the Wadge and Isaacs report. If she had, it would have been acted on. "The governor should have sent it to the Foreign Office and it should have been brought to the attention of whoever was the Caribbean minister in those days," she said.

"We were absolutely determined to respond to the scientific evidence. There was no scientific evidence which wasn't fully accepted. I have no knowledge of this report."

Professor Wadge was not anxious to apportion blame for the effective disappearance of his report. "The main reaction at the time was polite: 'Yes, this is very interesting but we notice there hasn't been an eruption for hundreds of years.'

"It's an obvious way of thinking and it's unfortunate that it has caught them out in this way," he said.