Islanders keep their cool despite twin threat from storm and volcano

Evacuation dilemma for Montserrat authorities
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The Independent Online
THE Caribbean island of Montserrat faces a twin threat today from the Chance's Peak volcano and tropical storm Iris. As Iris lumbered in from the east, downgraded from hurricane status but still carrying 65 mph winds, Montserrat's Chief Minister Reuben Meade said there was a "relatively high probability" that the volcano would erupt "any day now".

All tourists have gone and the 10,000 residents are now all living north of a "safe line" through the centre of the island, but the approaching storm is rattling nerves and in some cases causing panic. Several hundred evacuees have been moved to churches, schools and other people's homes after tents erected by Royal Marine commandos were swept away in the storm's preliminary winds.

"Once there's a high wind, some people will panic," Mr Meade said yesterday. The dilemmas for his government and British governor Frank Savage were whether to evacuate the entire population to the safety of nearby Antigua and how long the island could maintain emergency status with the capital, Plymouth, and half the island abandoned.

"We do not wish to take individuals to Antigua and then find they're in a worse situation," the Chief Minister said, referring to the approaching storm.

"We could then be liable. If we take people from here to Antigua, they may miss the volcano but end up being endangered by a hurricane."

Mr Meade declined to quantify the current threat of an eruption by the 3,000ft Chance's Peak which dominates the island. "The scientists would prefer not to use percentages, but there is still a relatively high probability of it blowing," he said. He estimated that hot lava would gush from the crater at a speed of around 36 miles an hour.

"Since 1902, no one has died in the Caribbean from a volcano," he said. Maybe so, but there is a lingering collective trauma in the Caribbean over what happened that year. The Mont Pele volcano in Martinique killed 30,000 people, virtually the entire population of the island. According to the history books, only one prisoner, in solitary confinement in a dungeon, lived to tell the tale.

"The probability of dying from volcanic activity in Montserrat is significantly less than getting shot in New York City," Mr Meade insisted amid gloom- and-doom questioning from foreign reporters.

Even though north of the "safe line", Montserratians - descendants of black slaves and Irish Catholics banished by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century - were concerned for their homes, livestock, land or other property in the face of the twin threat. Hurricane Hugo, which devastated the island in 1989, destroyed 90 per cent of its buildings.

Among those was one of the world's best-known recording studios, owned by the Beatles' former producer George Martin, a longtime visitor and part-time resident of Montserrat. The red-tiled roof was ripped from the hillside studio where the Rolling Stones and other top bands used to record. Martin recorded an album featuring stars such as Sting and Paul McCartney to raise money for the hurricane's victims. "Mick Jagger just hated it here because nobody took any notice of him," said local hotelier Carol Osborne. "Whereas Sting just loved coming here because people would just say `good morning' and walk on."

Thanks to Cromwell's banishment of Irish Catholic "rogues, vagrants and sturdy beggars" to Montserrat after his victory at Drogheda in 1649, Irish surnames and place names are common here. There's a village called St Patrick's, districts called Galway's and Sweeney's, and surnames such as Farrell, O'Brien and Riley are common. As elsewhere, black slaves tended to take the names of their masters after emancipation.

As part of the traditional masquerade dances, there is an Irish-style heel-and-toe routine. The national dish, goat stew, is said to have developed from the Irish stew.

At yesterday's briefing, Mr Meade was bombarded with questions as to the extent of the threat from both the volcano and the storm. Refusing to rise to the bait of one British reporter who suggested his island was "cursed", the Chief Minister delivered the perfect dignified put-down.

"You can look at it the other way round," said Mr Meade, "that we're very blessed with our mountains and volcanoes. We don't see it as a curse. One of the things you'll find with Caribbean people is that we're very resilient. We are born to disaster. All of our ancestors came across from Africa choc-a-bloc like sardines. That has created some resilience among our population."