Caribbean Beat Magazine

Out of the ashes

Five years after the Soufriére Hills volcano erupted, Montserratians are getting back to a life of normalcy, despite the ever-present threat of yet another eruption. Simon Young reports

  • The plants are thriving despite ash falls. Photograph by Mango Tree Productions
  • Housing development at Lookout. Photograph by Simon Young/ Mango Tree Productions
  • Margaret McEvoy/ Mango Tree Productions

The “Emerald Isle” of the Caribbean is getting its colour back. After five years under the grey blanket of an active volcano, Montserrat is finally starting to heal.

Ever since the fateful day in July 1995 when steam started spouting from the Soufrière Hills, Montserratians have been living in the shadow of nature’s wrath. Today, locals are almost oblivious to the ash clouds and distant rock falls. But three years ago, things were very different. The ash fall was relentless. Families were thrown into panic and torn apart as thousands fled to Britain and other Caribbean islands. Farmers on the flanks of the volcano were killed. The capital was destroyed. The only link to the outside world, a tiny airport, was burned to the ground.

When the dust settled, 4,000 sturdy souls remained. In true West Indian fashion, the T-shirt vendors captured the spirit: their slogans read “Montserrat, still home, still nice”.

The eruption of Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano began more than five years ago, and shows no sign of ending. The molten rock ejected by the volcano has a sticky consistency which gradually builds a lava dome; eventually the dome collapses, producing deadly pyroclastic flows and towering ash clouds. The current dome has been growing since November 1999, apart from a partial collapse in March 2000.

Scientists monitoring the volcano think that the cycle of growth and collapse of the lava dome will continue. However, they are confident that future collapses will not lead to damage and destruction of any areas not already affected by the volcano. An Exclusion Zone around the volcano in the south of the island marks the dangerous area; no one is permitted to enter. The rest of the island is safe; occasional light ash falls are the only impact from the volcano.

Reconstruction is now keeping the island humming. For people here, the banging of hammers and the chugging of back-hoes has a familiar ring. Many of those who defied the volcano are also survivors of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Cedric and Carol Osborne are the unofficial ambassadors of Montserrat. Their hotel, the Vue Pointe, perches at the edge of the exclusion zone, overlooking the volcano and the ash-covered golf course. The ash and the authorities finally closed them down in 1997, but the hotel is almost ready for business again. The family estate house in the Tar River valley wasn’t so lucky: it was the first building to be destroyed by the volcano back in 1996. Both hotel and estate house were severely damaged by Hugo too.

But the couple’s other business, a building supplies yard, is thriving, with demand for aggregate and timber insatiable. Such are the ups and downs of small island life. “We just take one day at a time,” says Cedric, thankful for the opportunity to rebuild.

Hugo damaged 90% of the island’s homes, but the volcano is a far more relentless enemy. All the island’s key infrastructure and most of its housing stock is buried under ash or sealed off inside the exclusion zone, too close to the volcano for anyone’s comfort. Director of Development Angela Greenaway oversees the rebuilding, funded largely by the British Government. “The volcanic activity in Montserrat has given us the opportunity to start afresh and rebuild a community,” she says.

While provision of new housing for the displaced has been the main priority for the island’s government, more exciting developments are now starting up. Little Bay, a beautiful west-coast cove, is the site for the new capital. Government buildings, a cultural centre and private businesses all have their place in the town plan. The aim is to create the Caribbean’s newest and most distinctive capital.

Already home to a new jetty and expanding port facilities, Little Bay is now the centre of island life. A sleek ferry arrives twice daily from Antigua, carrying locals and day-trippers, supplies and news from relatives. Montserratians are coming around to the idea that the ferry will be their main link with the outside world for many years to come.

Other key developments include a major new sporting facility, fit to host a World Cup cricket match in 2007, according to Cricket Association president John Smith. A permanent home for the volcano observatory is also planned, emphasising the role played by the scientists and their instruments in the new Montserrat. Chelston Lee, the observatory’s Communications Director, has the task of turning the science of the volcano into a tourist draw. “People around the world associate Montserrat with volcanic destruction,” she says. “They are curious to see what has happened.”

Director of Tourism Ernestine Cassell hopes that Montserrat’s infamy as the “volcano island” will lead in turn to a redirection and rejuvenation of its tourism industry. “Montserrat has been blessed by a natural phenomenon, a live and active volcano, which we know will be fascinating to visitors,” says Cassell. Although the golf course and one of the two main hotels have been lost, the island now boasts other, more unusual attractions, including a buried city and new beaches strewn with volcanic artifacts. A brand-new hotel has just opened its doors, and local gift shops and food stands are finding their feet again.

From the safe vantage point of Garibaldi Hill or Richmond Hill, the ruins of Plymouth, the old capital, are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you are lucky enough to see an ash cloud or hear the boom of an explosion, the exhilaration is magnified.

Yet just a couple of miles north of the exclusion zone, the greenness for which the island is famous returns. The Centre Hills, themselves an old volcano, are almost untouched: they are now home to the national bird, the Montserrat Oriole, and other indigenous wildlife such as the Mountain Chicken, driven from the Soufrière Hills by ash and gas.

A hike through the cloud forest shows just how creative nature is. Montserrat’s geological and natural history is tied to violent volcanic activity, yet nature survives and adapts, rejuvenates and flourishes. Already, adventurous spiders are parachuting onto the ashy wastelands of the volcano’s flanks, and wind-blown seeds sprout new life.

The volcano has brought a new type of rejuvenation in the human community too. The reflection that takes place in times of trouble has led to a cultural reawakening. Poets and writers, musicians and actors, are thriving in the new spirit of hardship overcome. The local radio station has become the island’s lifeline. People tune into for everything from messages (“call your auntie in Antigua”) to reports on the day’s pyroclastic flows. Back-yard recording studios produce the soca sounds of the north-east Caribbean, tinged with volcano emotion.

Alphonsus Cassell, better known as Arrow, Montserrat’s most famous son, found fame and fortune with Hot Hot Hot. Today, his songs are aimed at those who dug their heels in and didn’t flee. The tiny population has embraced Arrow’s work. His words are the unofficial national anthem:

Ah just can’t run away, no

as long as mango and breadfruit down here,

I’ll be holding on.

Montserrat, hold on to what you’ve got!

But it will take time. A new airstrip is still several years away at best. The economy is heavily reliant on funds from London, and the limited land now available for new houses means that many of those displaced overseas may never return. Young Montserratians must travel abroad for education after they reach 15 or 16, and there is little to attract them back.

Life on the 39-square-mile rock has been ripped apart. The history books will record that more than half the population was forced to leave, and the printed word can never capture what relocation has meant to a people who lived with their doors wide open to the island breeze.

But Montserrat has survived, and the community which remains is feeling renewed confidence that, despite everything, their island is the only place to be, an emerald isle once again.


The Montserrat Volcano Observatory’s website is at www.mvomrat.com. Information for visitors is available from the Montserrat Tourist Board at www.visitmontserrat.com