Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MONTSERRAT-NATURAL DISASTER: Life in the Uncertain Zone

Patrick Smikle

PLYMOUTH, Jul 18 1996 (IPS) - It began exactly one year ago today. The Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat which had been dormant for more than 450 years, started rumbling, spewing steam and ash forming a dome of semi-solid lava above the 915-metre Chances Peak mountain, the country’s highest point.

Since then the just under 11,000 residents of this 102 sq km British colony have had to live with scores of earth tremors each day. On the night of Aug. 13 there were more than 100.

They have experienced ash falls which blanketed the capital Plymouth, turning midday into midnight and bringing life to a halt.

They have watched the huge, hot lava dome break off, mix with ash and other materials to form what the scientists call pyroclastic flows that hurtled down the mountain at speeds of up to 112 kms an hour.

Montserratians have had to fight with insurance companies who are refusing to accommodate claims for volcano damage. They have watched most businesses in and around the capital close, creating serious unemployment problems.

Before disaster struck the island’s unemployment level stood at six percent.

The American University of the Caribbean, an offshore medical school which had operated in Montserrat since 1978 and which was a critical source of foreign exchange, relocated to nearby St. Martin.

The school had a population of 2,500.

Agriculture has been destroyed, manufacturing has been cut back significantly and tourism is floundering, says Chief Minister, Reuben Meade.

The more than 4,000 inhabitants of southern Montserrat have had to be evacuated twice to the north. Since the second evacuation they have not been allowed to return to their homes.

The British charity, Christian Aid, which recently sent a fact finding mission to Montserrat, calculates that the entire population now lives on one-third of the island.

The population shifts triggered by the volcanic activity, including the relocation of homes, schools and businesses, have forced the government to undertake a census, which the administration says will provide information to help it deal with the volcanic crisis in a more effective manner.

However, observers say census data will not provide the kind of information the Montserratian government needs to deal with one of its major concerns — the levels of stress in the society.

People in the country are living under great strain which is likely to increase as the hurricane season progresses, Christian Aid noted in a report. “Some people have been living in schools or churches since December.”

The quality of life has been undermined, added senior Policy Advisor of Christian Aid, Robert Archer “…the big problem is not so much that there will be a major eruption, but that this slow dome growth will continue and may in time lead to quite extensive damage around the volcano including in the most populated areas around the capital. And that will also mean that people may not be able to go home for quite a long time.”

Christian Aid officials have recommended that the British government upgrade its offer to waive normal immigration requirements for those Montserratians who want to leave the island for that country, by providing airfares.

Meade says up to a week ago fewer than 100 people had indicated a desire to leave for Britain. Montserratians don’t want to leave their country, he says. The majority of those who leave go to nearby islands such as Antigua and St. Martin in search of work.

But observers say amid all this displacement Montserrat has assumed the status of an important seismological laboratory as West Indian and British scientists monitor earth movements, rock falls and gas emissions.

The volcanic activity has put Montserrat “in the vanguard of research and international interest” says Franklyn Michael, director of the Emergency Operations Centre.

Tony Atkinson of the British-based Warwick University has suggested that the country could derive substantial long-term economic benefits from the export of natural enzymes which thrive in the inhospitable atmosphere of the volcano.

 
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