Montserrat: After the eruption

It is 10 years since a volcano turned Montserrat into a moonscape of black ash. Yet many islanders who fled the disaster are refusing to return. Phil Davison reports

Saturday 17 September 2011 13:13

Ten years ago today, the British island of Montserrat was "the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean", an upmarket getaway for celebrities and pop stars from Elton John to Eric Clapton.

Its capital, Plymouth, was throbbing to calypso and soca rhythms, and the locals and tourists were enjoying the national dish of "mountain chicken" (a giant frog) or sipping rum punches on its shimmering black sand beaches.

But the lives of the 11,000 islanders were about to change forever. On 18 July 1995, the lush green Soufriere Hills, a favourite picnic site amid mango and breadfruit trees and thundering waterfalls, began to rumble and steam. Hardly anyone on the island had been aware that the ring of peaks above Plymouth formed the rim of a still-active volcano. These rolling hills just did not look the way a volcano is supposed to look. And there had been no eruption in recorded history.

By August 1997, the steam had given way to massive eruptions of magma, and Plymouth became buried by pyroclastic flows of red-hot ash, gas and rock, turning it into a modern-day Pompeii. Though the town had been evacuated, 19 people were killed by a single pyroclastic flow on surrounding farmlands.

On the other side of the island, the picturesque little W H Bramble airport was also buried, leaving Montserrat accessible only during daylight hours, by helicopter or a gut-churning one-hour ferry ride from Antigua.

This week, in what the islanders celebrated as a historic occasion, something resembling normal service was resumed. To great fanfare and cheered by a quarter of the island's 4,800 remaining residents, the first fixed-wing plane for eight years flew in to a new airport, squeezed on to a rugged plateau at Gerald's, in the northern "safe zone" where the remaining islanders live in an area of only 13 square miles.

After the police band played "God Save the Queen" - the island is one of Britain's few remaining colonies, now called overseas territories - Chief Minister John Osborne told Caribbean dignitaries and cheering children: "This is a day of celebration and new beginnings, of rejuvenation and rebirth. Montserrat is open again for business."

Deborah Barnes Jones, the British governor, added: "It's a red-letter day for Montserrat." Her twin teenage daughters are at boarding school in England but visit the island regularly. "I don't want to say we're now on the map, because that sounds as though we'd dropped into the Bermuda triangle."

She and Mr Osborne then boarded the inaugural outward flight, to neighbouring Antigua, on a 19-seat Twin Otter aircraft of Windward Islands Airways (Winair), based on the Dutch island of St Maarten.

Mr Osborne said he wanted to take the flight "to show everyone that our new Gerald's airport is safe". Critics had said the 600-metre runway was too short, and, on such a windy slope, would be tricky for pilots. In fact, it was the only option in the mountainous "safe zone", although it required considerable engineering skill by the Belfast-based Lagan International.

The little planes may take only 19 people at a time, on four flights a day to Antigua and St Maarten, but Montserratians see the air link as highly symbolic after 10 years as virtual refugees on their island, moving farther north as their homes in the southern two-thirds were destroyed or the danger zone was extended. They are already calling the new airport "our gateway to the world". The helicopter flights to Antigua were expensive and hard to get seats on. The ferry ride, of more than an hour, was gruelling over the huge Atlantic swells. Sick bags were issued to every passenger and often used.

"An airport is one of the most important ingredients for rebuilding our economy," Chief Minister Osborne said. "Planes bring tourists, tourists bring business to other sectors, tourism gives confidence to investors."

For much of the past 10 years, the islanders were in shock. Only recently has it dawned on them that they will not be going back to their beautiful south soon, perhaps not even in their lifetimes. But, with a new airport, they now feel they are moving on.

Cricket is still their first love, but a new hilltop football stadium in the Blake's area is attracting more and more fans to cheer the national side, coached by Ruel Fox, the Montserrat-born former Norwich winger, into improving on their Fifa ranking of fourth-worst team in the world.

"We're not there yet, not by a long way, but everything is moving forward," said Margaret Wilson, originally from Sunderland but who has lived on the island for more than 20 years with her partner, local fisherman Danny Sweeney, a descendant of African slaves and Irish Catholic refugees who first came to the island.

They have moved back to their famous rickety restaurant/bar, Jumping Jack's, by the beach at Old Road Bay after digging it out from a layer of thick, black ash. Volcanic ash is like dry cement and has to be disposed of.

"There's a feeling that we're all getting going again," said Ms Wilson, a blonde Joni Mitchell lookalike who cooks and serves her partner's freshly caught wahoo to anyone from the governor to visiting former resident Sir George Martin. In the 1980s, the former Beatles producer's Air Studios on the island brought some of the world's biggest stars, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, The Police, among others. The studios are now blanketed in ash and abandoned but Sir George is helping with the island's reconstruction.

Work has started on a new cultural and community centre at Little Bay, by the ferry terminal in the north, from funds he raised at a star-studded concert for Montserrat in the Royal Albert Hall in 1997. They hope to open it on St Patrick's Day next year, which is a major holiday because of the island's historic Irish connections. Most people here, black, white or mixed, have Irish surnames.

When Sir George's project was placed there, it looked as though Little Bay, formerly nothing more than a quiet fishing jetty, was favourite to become the site of the new capital, to replace Plymouth. But new government buildings, schools, a new Bank of Montserrat building, new police and fire stations, and a new office for the governor, all in the hillside village of Brades, have turned the latter into something of a de facto capital.

"Old Road Bay beach used to be my favourite place in the world," Ms Wilson added. "It's not what it used to be but we're getting there." The beach, where Sting learnt to windsurf, and cruise line tourists used to come ashore to sip cold Carib beers on the black volcanic sand, is now covered in ashy silt. It is not attractive, but the ocean itself is clean and clear.

That is why Bryan Cunningham, a South African diving instructor, has moved next door to Jumping Jack's and set up a diving school and shop in what used to be a renowned beachside bar called The Nest, formerly run by Danny and Margaret Sweeney in the pre-volcano days. "I've been all over the world looking for the best diving site and this is it," he said. "I think it will prove worth the investment, despite the volcano. This island is truly a Paradise Found for divers and travellers the world over."

Tourists have started trickling back, mostly to dive in the coral reefs or hike the mountain trails, but also out of curiosity, to see a live volcano. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which is manned by British and Caribbean scientists, organises guided tours as close to the volcano as you would want to go.

On the slopes above Old Road Bay, the Vue Pointe, once among the great five-star hotels of the Caribbean, has had its ups and downs since the volcano erupted. Its owners, Cedric and Carol Osborne, have had to abandon it several times, and dig it out from layers of thick ash to reopen it again. Its rooms, luxury octagonal hillside villas with direct line of sight to the volcano, have often lain empty. Now they are full and overflowing.

First, there were the visiting dignitaries and journalists for the airport inauguration. But in the coming week, the hotel is also hosting a major international conference of 120 of the world's leading vulcanologists, titled, "The Soufriere Hills volcano - 10 years on".

The experts say that, due to developing technology, no volcano has been studied as much as this one. They describe it as "a natural laboratory for the science of volcanology" and can watch it from the state-of-the-art observatory, fewer than two miles from, and in direct view of, the crater rim.

If that sounds close, it is. The observatory is on the border between the "safe" and "exclusion" zones. But it is built on a high hill, and the experts believe that, in a major eruption, gravitational pyroclastic flows would follow the ghauts (ravines) and valleys and that the observatory would be safe. They should know.

Most of the 6,000 Montserratians who fled over the past 10 years, largely to Britain, are not quite so sure. Few have returned. Though the population has risen from a low of less than 3,000 to the present 4,800, many of the new arrivals are from other countries in the region, notably Jamaica, Guyana and the Dominican Republic. The problem is that the island needs Montserratians to return from England and elsewhere to revive the tourism-based economy. But the exiles need a revived economy to attract them back.

Down in the Belham River valley, close to Jumping Jack's bar, the picturesque 11-hole "Royal Montserrat Golf Club" course has long been buried under lahars, or mudslides, from the volcano. But there is talk of building a new one, optimistically even closer to the volcano, at Fox's Bay. That is inside the danger zone but some residents have moved back into the area and believe it is relatively safe.

They are allowed to enter the zone during daylight hours, though warned to stay tuned to local radio. But some are defying the official line and staying in their cleaned-out homes round-the-clock, despite lack of phones, water or electricity.

Everything, of course, hinges on the volcano. Will it blow again is the big question. A major report from the experts at the observatory in April said there had been no new "dome growth", that is, the volcano was not expanding the way it does before major eruptions. But they said there was a 23 per cent probability of an eruption of magma within the next year, and a 10 per cent probability that such an eruption could be "large". The report added: "We stress that the exclusion zone remains a dangerous place in the event of any explosive resumption of activity."

So the risks remain. But that has not stopped a recent boom in the property market. Houses you could not give away in the years after the major eruptions are now being snapped up, many by British buyers making use of the pound's strength against the US dollar, and therefore the fixed-rate east Caribbean dollar.

Villas with swimming pools and overlooking the ocean, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds before the volcano, fell in some cases to five figures at the worst of the crisis as pools were filled with heavy, hard-to-remove ash. Now, in the Old Towne area, around the Vue Pointe hotel and just inside the "safe zone", you would be lucky to lay your hands on a villa, regardless of the price.

Another major eruption is a risk some people are prepared to take to live on what they hope will be Paradise Regained. But all of them keep a shovel to hand.

Phil Davison's book, 'Volcano in Paradise', is published by Methuen: Price: £14.99

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