Another Day Under the Black Volcano
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|Outside magazine, May 1998
Another Day Under the Black Volcano
Picture a life in the shadow of the rumbling Soufri`ere, from whose vicissitudes come ash and rock and a possible scorching death. Would you flee, as have most of your neighbors? Or linger like the last 3,000 souls, who say there's no better place to be than on the island of Montserrat?
February dawn, two inches of white powder cover the mountains, roads, and rooftops. Everything is silent, pristine. Flakes drift in the still air, glittering with sunlight. A picture of winter wonderland: You could be in Appalachia, Geneva, even the Japanese Alps. But the temperature is 73 degrees. Humidity is stifling. At your back is the sapphire sea.
Here, beneath the white powder, bushes are bursting with blossoms: pink oleander, red heliconia, orange Barbados pride. From every branch of an enormous mango tree protrudes a pale yellow, stalklike flower. Some are already drooping with hard green bulbs. In several months' time, when the season arrives, people will grow sick from eating so many crimson, too-sweet Eden mangoes.
One by one they begin to appear in the street. All are scantily dressed, most of the men in shorts, their only protection against the weather surgical masks, impossibly white against their black faces, or perforated paper disks, held over nose and mouth by a rubber band. The danger is silicosis-producing particles. Yet the risk of developing silicosis from long-term exposure to the particles is still unknown. What silicosis is exactly is not spelled out in any of the official government documents. Only that the condition, should it develop, is lethal and irreversible.
Slowly the first drops of rain begin to fall, each pellet a tiny explosion in the white powder. An almost imperceptible noise, growing louder — and suddenly the world comes to life. Cocks crow, dogs begin to bark, and shouting is heard in the Anglican Church in St. Peter's, now a shelter in the safe zone: “Praise Jesus! Rain come! Rain!” Soon the church bells are ringing too, ringing for rain.
Here in the northern third of the tiny island of Montserrat, beneath the shadow of the Soufriˆre Hills Volcano, life is resurrecting itself. For most this is the second rebirth: They have already built two homes, lived in two shelters — farther and farther away from Soufriˆre. Some are preparing to relocate a third time. And like the 8,000 who have fled the island already, this time it will be to nearby Antigua, or far away to England. The Voluntary Evacuation Scheme is ready to assist them: one-way passage, and if they choose to go to the Mother Country, full rights as British citizens, which entitles them to apply for the dole. But most of the remaining 3,000 inhabitants will not be moving off-island. These Montserratians are here to stay. And, says Governor Anthony Abbott, the most important Brit on the island, so long as the scientists tell them it's safe in the north, he's staying, too.
The most recent setback has been a week of ashfall. Nothing to do but stay in with the windows shut tight, and clean house. Continuously. Nearly as much ash inside as out. But Montserratians, with
their immutable sense of illogic, don't blame the volcano: They blame the wind. Which, as it does for a few days every few months, has been blowing the wrong way. The result is ashfall. Ashfall, which is the major inconvenience, the major health risk, of new life in the north. Then comes the rain, the cries of jubilation in St. Peter's, the church bells, and in a matter of hours Montserrat is itself again.
IF LIKE ANY TRAVELER (THOUGH THESE days there aren't many) you drop in first at the Visit Us Montserrat Web site, don't miss the parenthetical note. The page announces the tourist board's official rubric — Montserrat: The Way The Caribbean Used To Be — which even in troubled times the board adheres to with a vengeance.
“Completely unspoilt, Montserrat has an enchanting antique charm, friendly people and natural beauty…the perfect setting for a relaxing holiday,” reads the text. There's the Georgian architecture of picturesque Plymouth, the capital, and don't miss the colorful gardens of the eighteenth-century Government House, where a carved shamrock on its gabled roof bears bold testament to the Irish heritage. There are rewarding hikes through glorious hills with the most spectacular views. Spectacular, too, the 70-foot drop of the Great Alps Falls, which tumble from White River into a clear, gentle pool, perfect for wading. Visit Foxes Bay Bird Sanctuary and chance a glimpse of the yellow-breasted Montserrat oriole, of which only 100 pairs remain. Windsurfing, waterskiing, sailing, and deep-sea fishing are favorite diversions, with snorkeling and diving expeditions easily arranged. Tennis courts are available at the Vue Pointe Hotel, and the island boasts the Royal Montserrat Golf Club, a beautiful 11-hole course at Belham Valley. Cuisine is West Indian, with subtle influences of French and Irish; a must-sample is the local delicacy called mountain chicken, a large land frog. “Evening entertainment is casual, taking the form of local barbecues or dancing alfresco to the sounds of a steel band.”
And the parenthetical note: “Montserrat is currently suffering severe volcanic activity in the South of the island, causing the destruction of much of its vegetation in that part of the country and the abandonment of the capital and closure of the airport. Some of the information on this page is therefore no longer accurate and will be updated.”
THERE'S A WOODEN STRUCTURE — I would soon come to know it as a T-1-11, named for a type of pressure-treated plywood used to build temporary housing — at the end of the wharf in Antigua. Inside, shuffling from compartment to compartment, you buy your ticket for the ferry, pay your departure tax, and clear customs and immigration for Montserrat.
I'm last in line. The heavyset woman behind the ticket desk looks up at me. She's bursting out of her starched white shirt-jack with black piping and epaulets — uniform for the police and all officials in Montserrat.
“No more ticket,” she says.
I don't understand. I can see the ferry docked at the end of the concrete wharf: a modern, sparkling, pontooned affair, far too sleek for its surroundings. It looks fast. It looks like it belongs to Carnival Cruise Lines, shuttling people over to Fantasy Island. Besides that, it's huge, and I know for a fact there were only a dozen people in the line ahead of me.
“You mean there's no more room?” I ask.
She continues staring. “You got a piece of paper?”
I pull a yellow pad from my pack, tear off a sheet, and hand it over. She carefully folds it up, and with a fancy silver letter opener slices the paper into quarters.
She looks up again. “What to write?” she asks me.
I need a few seconds. “Write 'Ferry Ticket, Antigua-Montserrat.' Write 'Return Hopeful.'”
She writes, with far more care and attention than the task requires. Meanwhile I've counted out my money. She flips the piece of paper, rolls her stamp across it, writes “#13.” She shoves it over.
Now it's me staring.
“What happen?” she asks.
“There's a volcano, right?” I ask.
“I don't like the number.”
She sucks her teeth. “You want go Montserrat or no?” she asks.
Truth is, I'm not sure. But I don't tell her that.
She sucks her teeth again, looks over her shoulder, makes me #14.
I move on to the immigration cubicle. The officer stamps my passport, looks up. “Ticket?” he asks. I produce my yellow square. We stare at each other.
“No more tickets,” I say.
“Roses!” he bawls. “What dis piece a yellow ting de man give me?”
“No more ticket!” she shouts from her cubicle.
He sucks his teeth. Turns the ticket over and rolls his stamp on top of Roses's.
Next is the customs cubicle, where there's a line of five people holding their bags. There's an unwritten law in the Caribbean: During times of crisis, when people are only looking to get out of the country, harass them double in customs on their way back in. I wait my turn, an argument between a Rasta and the officer almost coming to blows. The officer goes through every compartment in my bag, pulls everything out, stuffs it back inside. He carefully squeezes every ball of socks. Then he looks up.
“Ticket?” he asks. I produce my piece of paper. “Roses!” he bawls.
“No more ticket!” she shouts.
He sucks his teeth, rolls on his stamp, and I leave to board the ferry. As soon as I'm outside I hear the engines gargling. I take off in a run. There's an officer in his starched shirt standing beside the gangplank. He stops me as I attempt to board.
“Ticket?” he asks.
ALLIOUAGANA IS THE NAME THE CARIBS called it, “land of the prickly bush,” or aloe, the main ingredient of burn lotions tourists would rub on their scorched hides 500 years after Columbus renamed the island, so historians tell us, for a mountain he was reminded of outside Barcelona. In that city his galleons were built, so it is very likely that Columbus had seen the mountain. Or, more pointedly, he had visited the black Virgin of Montserrat, a wooden statue kept in the cathedral there. Strangely enough, though I had never visited this Caribbean island in my own backyard, I had made Columbus's reverse pilgrimage to see the Montserrat Virgin, cousin to La Divina Pastora, my own black Virgin of Siparia, the closest thing we Trinidadians have to a patron saint.
All this is a lengthy preamble to illustrate why, as I approached on the ferry and looked up at the three dark peaks of Montserrat, Silver, Centre, and Soufriˆre Hills — one behind the other in ascending order — I felt sure that the historians were slightly off. Columbus had named the island Santa Maria de Montserrate not for the Catalan mountain, but for the Virgin, the three ascending peaks reminding him of the orb she holds in her right hand, the head of the infant who sits upright on her lap, and her own jagged crown like the saw-toothed peaks of Soufriˆre, severing the clouds above. This, I suggest, the Montserratians know instinctively — none I asked had heard of the Catalan statue — and that is why they insist that their volcano, which has now claimed 19 lives and two-thirds of the island, be referred to as a she.
One last note on the black Virgin: There are various theories to explain the Catalan Madonna's jet-colored skin. Perhaps she evolved from a pre-Christian earth mother goddess, a goddess capable of good and evil, of destruction and creation, like the Hindu black goddess, Kali. The Catalans' rationale is simpler and more precise: At some point, they say, their beautiful Madonna was charred. My point being that when Columbus named the island after the black Virgin of Montserrat, in more ways than one he was the first to foretell the story the volcano now writes.
THE 39-SQUARE-MILE ISLAND IS SHAPED like a ham hock, floating north to south just as it would hang in the butcher shop, Soufriˆre just below the joint. After the first eruptions it was divided into seven official zones — the lower the zone, the greater the danger — like a series of arcs radiating up the shank. Practically speaking, though, there are three areas: the north, where all the construction is taking place and where the stores and businesses have been relocated to rented homes or, more frequently, to aluminum shipping containers; the buffer zone, where people have been told the danger is “real” and advised to leave, but which is not for the moment off-limits (Governor Abbott's offices were, until recently, located in a rental home here); and the exclusion zone, which takes up the largest area, consisting of the volcano and the valleys it has claimed.
To get past the wooden barrier at the edge of the buffer zone is difficult by car; it requires chatting up the two police officers who sit parked at the gate, usually sleeping, which doesn't make your request any easier. On foot, though, it's not a problem. If the officers make a fuss you tell them you're going to buy beer at Ram's, whose brand-new, million-dollar grocery ended up 50 feet short of safety the second time they divided up the map. (Word is that Ram tried to buy himself a better boundary and actually managed to for a time — until his rival grocer, Angelo, began to complain).
Having passed the barrier, I follow a narrow, potholed road curving up into the forest of the Centre Hills. There are a few wooden houses alongside the road, tucked in among the trees, but no people and no traffic. Just when I decide I'm all alone, I hear some rustling in the weeds higher up the hill to my left: It's a donkey, untethered, happily munching away. He doesn't like my intruding upon his lunch, and he takes off in a bolt across the road. Suddenly five others appear, stampeding down the hill at me. By the time I take this in they've already passed, and I'm staring at a cloud of dust rising behind them. I've been told about the animals roaming free in the exclusion zone — cattle, sheep, goats, and even packs of dogs that are becoming a major problem — and I assume these donkeys are among the dispossessed.
I continue up the winding road, and as soon as I think about stopping to catch my breath, the trees open before me. There are a few board houses nestled among the hills, but again people are conspicuously missing. All is strangely silent, uncanny — not even a dog barking in the distance. Though my feet are now still, my eyes continue traveling. Out over lush Belham Valley; past the old estate house tucked into the Centre Hills, with its column of sun-beaten royal palms before the rusty wrought-iron gates; over the fields, now turning from opulent green to yellow to sienna brown to charcoal. My eyes travel up and up — past thin clouds to the stark white gaping fish-mouth of Soufriˆre, spewing forth its interminable gray and salmon-tinted ash.
I've read all the facts. I know that on July 18, 1995, the volcano began to wake up from a good long sleep of 16,000 years. I know that one month later, on August 21, a day now remembered as Ash Monday, Soufriˆre suddenly turned noon to darkest night. I know it's responsible for three separate evacuations of the nearby villages — “Cause a woman could never make up she mind proper!” the locals say. I know that on May 12, 1996 — Mother's Day — Soufriˆre rumbled in hybrid earthquake swarms, sending lava flows a mile and a half down Tar River Valley in seconds, dumping rocks into the sea. I know the volcano is capable of sending its plume 40,000 feet in the air, of dumping 600 tons of ash on the island in a matter of hours. That on June 25, 1997, it sent surges screaming down Mosquito Ghaut, devastating the villages of Streathams, Rileys, Harris, Windy Hill, Bramble, Bethel, Spanish Point, Trants, and Farms, leaving 19 people dead. I know that it has destroyed Plymouth, the capital city. That for two and a half years Soufriˆre has pelted the people of Montserrat with stones, pumice, red-hot boulders, ash, and more ash. That it now holds them hostage in a crowded corner of their small island.
I've read all the facts. I've seen pictures and video footage. But nothing has prepared me for the mountain itself. I cannot bring myself to look away.
TOLD BY HIS INDIAN GUIDE THAT THE Caribs had already killed off all the Arawaks, and preoccupied with visions of gold, Columbus never set foot on the depopulated island. Neither did the first Spanish governor of the region, whose commission included five other islands of greater importance. So Indians were the only inhabitants of Montserrat prior to the Virginian Catholics who arrived around 1632. They were mostly Irish, and they came from nearby St. Kitts, where they had been similarly driven by Protestant intolerance. England's early interest in Montserrat seems to have been summed up by Bryan Edwards in his 1798 History of the British West Indies: “Of this little island, neither the extent nor the importance demands a very copious discussion. The civil history…contains nothing very remarkable.”
But Montserrat is unique in the Caribbean in that the impulse for European settlement there was religious freedom. These Irish settlers were primarily indentured laborers, and more were dispatched to the island by Oliver Cromwell in 1649. Initially tobacco was the main crop, but after the introduction of sugar there arose an Anglo-Irish planter class at the top, their African slaves at the bottom. In between were the “Christian servants,” which in 1649 totaled a thousand white families, most of which were Irish.
Much is made of the Irish influence on Montserrat. Of the names given to villages and mountains: Cork Hill, Fergus Mountain, St Patrick's. Of the surnames borne by many Montserratians: Galloway, O'Donoghue, Riley, Blake. Much is made of the influence on music and festivals. Of the green shamrock appearing on immigration stamps; of the island's coat of arms, depicting Erin and her harp. Much is made of the black Irishmen, of the “brogue” in their local dialect, of the native Irish-influenced goat stew. I would have to agree with Howard A. Fergus, Montserrat's own (he might say lone) intellectual — historian, poet, and sometime acting governor — that too much of all that is utter nonsense. Too many fabrications of the tourist industry to make its product appealing to a certain (white) audience. Too many misconceptions of sentimental Irish-American academics looking to write their dissertations. Too much emphasis on the Irish might also blunt the African.
It would also have to embellish it.
Montserratians' surnames are supposed to have been passed down to them as slaves by their former Irish masters. Yet Fergus writes, “During the heyday of plantation life in Montserrat, most of the Irish were only a few removes from slavery.” Certainly many of these surnames were also passed down to the sons and daughters of Montserrat by way of legal marriage or unconsecrated union between the poor white Irish and free blacks and mulattoes who were their equals — or superiors. So attest their skins, their culture, their African-Irish resilience in the face of insurmountable odds.
Too much attention is given to one side or the other, and not enough tribute is paid to both.
HIKING THROUGH THE EXCLUSION ZONE, I come across a group of buildings that I recognize from photographs as the Vue Pointe Hotel. I walk through the open lobby, its Cuban cement tiles now covered by two inches of dirty ash. On the registration desk sits a phone with its silent receiver hanging off the hook, the 1997 Montserrat directory at its side, cover depicting an erupting Soufriˆre. In the main dining room a few tables have been toppled, but most remain with the chairs still in place around them, still draped in green linen tablecloths. On the terrace outside are ash-covered lounge chairs, a layer of bubbling gray ash floating on the puddle at the bottom of the pool.
I walk past the cabanas toward the beach, ash foaming at the water's edge, and now I come across the first person I've seen in this part of the exclusion zone. A Rasta — his locks tucked up into a woolen ski cap as big as a second head — reclining on a lounge chair beneath a tall coconut palm, quietly contemplating the sea.
He nods, and I sit on a boulder nearby, both of us silent. The waves are huge, breaking over the arm of the concrete wharf.
“Quiet around here,” I say, “with all the people gone.”
“Peaceable so,” he tells me. “I was tinking 'bout taking a salt bath.”
There's another minute of silence, and I ponder how to get him to tell me about the volcano. I assume he's been living here since the eruptions started.
“You're not afraid,” I ask, “living down here by yourself?”
“Yes, man! Plenty undertow wid de sea rolling heavy like dat!”
“What about the volcano?” I ask.
“Dem kinda big wave pull you under quick-quick!”
I decide he's either insane or stoned, or has chosen to ignore the situation. But I'm determined.
“So you've been living here all this time, with Soufriˆre erupting like that?”
“Got to swim hard, you know. Dem kinda sea.” And then, after a pause he asks, “You talking bout de hashes?”
“Yeah,” I say at last, “the ashes. Aren't you afraid for a surge to come down through here like it did at the airport on the other side?”
He turns his head to look at me for the first time.
“Maybe I get de line, do li'l fishing.”
SUGAR PRODUCTION REACHED ITS PEAK IN 1735, when 3,000 tons were produced. But by the time of emancipation in 1834, with the loss of slave labor, sugar and the traditional plantation system were nearing their end. After that the big industry was limes, then cotton, and by the 1960s Montserrat had begun to focus its energies on tourism. It would soon become the island's backbone and would remain so right up to Soufriˆre's interruption. Tourism started with locally owned guest houses and inns. A few small hotels followed, then a few larger ones. Still, there were no high-rises, no buildings over two stories. The Vue Pointe Hotel, the grandest on the island, has been owned since 1961 by the same family, one whose name is as familiar as any other here: Osborne. The tourism offered was personalized, quiet, laid-back. Outdoorsy. Hiking during the morning, rum cocktails on the veranda at sunset. The cruise ships called and things became a little more chaotic, but only for a couple of hours — a few T-shirts, a few U.S. dollars — and the hordes were gone. All things sunny, unsullied, timeless. The way the Caribbean used to be.
Word got out about the quiet anonymity, about certain tax advantages, about easily obtained residency permits, and a few wealthy foreigners (mostly Americans and Canadians — the Brits were already here) arrived to establish their hideaways. Former Beatles manager Sir George Martin erected what became the island's best-kept-secret: the multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art Air Studios (now standing deserted in the exclusion zone), where Stevie Wonder, Dire Straits, Sting, Elton John, and Paul McCartney have cut records. You'll remember Jimmy Buffett in 1979: “I don't know where I'm a gonna go when the volcano blow.”
In 1989 nature, the great leveler, did intervene, though not in the shape of Soufriˆre. Hurricane Hugo, the most destructive hurricane ever to hit Montserrat, damaged or destroyed 95 percent of the buildings. In the short term, it meant utter devastation; in the long run, however, it created a boom. For the first time since anyone could remember, people were actually migrating to Montserrat. (Unlike most islands in the Caribbean, one of its major problems is depopulation.) The people came mostly from St. Vincent, Trinidad, Dominica. The money came mostly from Britain. There was a new airport terminal. And in Plymouth, there were a new hospital, library, and Parliament Center, which together cost the British government ú17 million. People collected from their insurance and rebuilt their homes, and with the money they made from the building boom, some built second homes. By all accounts the recovery was extraordinary, so much so that by 1995 Montserrat was very nearly self-sufficient.
Then, on the morning of July 18, people in Plymouth awoke to the sound of rumbling. It could have been a distant airplane, but the noise didn't go away. By midday there were reports of falling ash, of a strong smell of sulfur. Mudflows had been seen in the higher elevations. That evening the governor announced on Radio Montserrat that people in Plymouth and the affected areas (which hadn't been specified yet) ought not to panic. Word spread. Telephone lines were jammed. Some first heard the news from relatives in England.
AN IMPORTANT PART OF EVERY CARIBBEAN country's sense of self is the making of its own dictionary. This usually comes with the nationalistic notions of independence. Dictionaries with names like Trini Talk, Jamaican Jibe, and Bajan Proper English. The island of Montserrat may not be ready or feel a need at the moment, but when its dictionary is written it will certainly be informed by the present history. I have taken it upon myself to give the project a jump start:
DICTIONARY AND PHRASEOLOGY OF MONTSERRAT
Arrow: nickname of singer Alphonsus Cassell, the most famous Montserratian, whose 1983 “Hot, Hot, Hot” was heard around the globe more than any calypso song since “Rum and Coca-Cola.” His arrow-shaped pool in the south is now under ash.
Ash: small fragments of lava and rock thrown out of the volcano to heights of 40,000 feet; can be carried hundreds of miles in strong winds.
Committed: considered a “bad word” by Montserratian Chief Minister David Brandt, is a favorite of the British government on the island: “We are committed to the people of Montserrat”; “We have committed ú51 million to the recovery of Montserrat.”
Domesday: unpredictable day on which Soufriˆre's dome collapses, sending consecutive waves of lava down the mountain.
Golden elephant: what Clare Short, British Secretary of State for International Development (and the least-liked person on the island) said Montserratians would be asking for next.
Green tabacca: what a Rasta in front of me in customs claimed ignorance of when the officer removed a five-pound bag from his luggage: “Me na notin' 'bout de green tabacca! Me na notin' 'bout de green tabacca!”
Inexact science: another name for volcanology.
Insurance: what no Montserratian has at the moment.
Pyroclastic flows: ash, gas, and burning rocks that rush down the mountain at speeds of over 100 miles per hour, the chief hazard of Caribbean volcanoes (unlike Hawaiian volcanoes, which feature slow lava flows).
Scheme: often incorrectly associated with “scheming,” actually the British word for “plan,” as in the Voluntary Evacuation Scheme and the Low Interest Mortgage Scheme.
Soufriˆre's prayer: “Father, you are in charge, you are sitting right there in the middle of that mountain. Father, I am asking you to protect me against pyroclastic flows and surges. Amen.”
TWO AND A HALF YEARS AFTER the crisis began, the shelter in the Anglican Church in St. Peter's is very much the same, except that instead of a hundred people living here, there are now 21. All are unhappy. Like Helen Holerin, a small, unsmiling woman who is maybe 60 years old. There's a frightened look to her features, as though she's about to break into tears. She has a square jaw and biceps as big as my own. Holerin and her husband have a home in Cork Hill, in the exclusion zone, and for the moment it remains standing. There they have a small plot of land that they worked between them, and when all of this is over, they hope to return. She tells me the shelter is “terrible! Plenty stresses. No space, no privacy. Everybody jam-up together. All de noise, de noise. And dem peoples does talk so dirty!” It's a common complaint: bad language. And dominoes. “Bop down the table, all into de night. Bop down de table. Domino in church! Not supposed to play domino in church. Church should be a place of worship!”
Holerin's main worry, though, is not her living situation. Nor is it her home in Cork Hill. It's the fate of her people, her island: “We get all mix-up and scatter 'bout de place like weeds. Everybody. All de people go and what could happen? Everybody leave and de place go 'way!”
Many of the residents here are Holerin's age; a few have grandchildren with them. Though they tell me there are other shelters with younger people, “plenty women and children.” Here there's a series of compartments surrounding the inside perimeter of the church, separated by pews and makeshift curtains of blankets and bedsheets. Out front, beyond the coral baptismal font, are several small wooden structures: two toilets, two showers, and two kitchens, each with a fridge and a gas stove.
Every two weeks the residents are given a roll of toilet paper, and every month a check for $240 in Eastern Caribbean currency, about $90 U.S. Despite the small sum, food is not a problem. Much is shared, and the Red Cross distributes donations received from abroad. Some gifts seem inappropriate, though, like the 25 sacks of Dunkin' Donuts mix. With cows roaming loose in the exclusion zone, there's ample meat, adequate chicken and fish. But for a country that produced most of the fruit and vegetables it consumed, these have become the greatest need; fruit is seasonal, and there are no more ash-covered vegetables to be smuggled in from the danger zone. And now that people are no longer working their fields, some are beginning to put on weight.
I meet a woman named Linda Dearly. Unlike most people in the shelters, she's talkative and brash. She's also the only person I've seen wearing a pyroclastic flow T-shirt, its caption reading, “Still Here…Still Happy!”
Dearly tells me she was living in Harris when the ash surges came through and burned down her house. “Where I was living you could call inside de volcano,” she says. “One morning I hear de little girl calling, 'Mummy, Mummy, de pyroclastic flow coming! De pyroclastic flow coming!' I say, 'Well, must be time to leave den.'”
She tells me that the government has given her a new home on Davy Hill (one of the infamous T-1-11s). “But dey ain't connect de toilet proper, dey ain't put down no road. When you use de toilet it leak all out 'pon de floor, when you try to mount de hill you slip-slide in all de mud.”
Dearly's getting excited, almost shouting now, and everyone is coming to see what's going on. “Tell de Chief Minister I need a toilet and a road to my house!” she says. “Write it down in you book: Linda Dearly need a toilet and a road to she house! In dis country we believe in sanitatiousness! And tell the Chief Minister I don't got no stove. Tell de Chief Minister I need a stove and a fridge in de kitchen! And bed. Two bed. Tell de Chief Minister Linda Dearly need a stove and fridge and two bed!”
OF THE MANY ARTICLES AND NEWS FLASHes featuring volcano destruction, one of the most interesting concerns ornithologist Jon Seltz's efforts to save the Montserrat orioles from final extinction. (Alas, no such saviors have appeared to help the volcano-whipped black snakes, ground lizards, and mountain chickens.) Seltz is bird curator of Wichita's Sedgwick County Zoo and an expert on captive birds. His plan: to net as many orioles as possible and move them to specially constructed aviaries in Costa Rica until they can be reintroduced in Montserrat.
The article states, “If Seltz had any doubts about the actual 'severity' of the situation, they were eliminated soon after his arrival on Montserrat.” In no time he was covered in ash, pelted with pumice, and had to take off running down the Centre Hills when a yellow-brown cloud of sulfuric gas came pouring out of the volcano. He reached his car at the last minute and spent another week hazarding more of the same before he left the island, defeated and birdless. Until he is able to return, Seltz has helped organize a group of Montserratians to remain on the lookout for orioles. They call themselves the Phoenix Project.
FINDING FAULT IS EASY AFTER THE FACT. TO the credit of the British government and its scientists, to the acclaim of the local government and its various emergency management and rescue organizations, thousands of lives were saved. It is perhaps a small miracle that only 19 were lost. And those 19 people were told time and time again to vacate the area. According to Governor Abbott, 70 people still live in the high-risk or exclusion zones. He says he knows who and where they are; he's trying to get them out.
The scientists tell us that Soufriˆre is likely to continue doing what it's doing, more or less, for another two and a half years. There are likely to be continued heavy ash- and rock-fall, mud flows, earthquakes, pyroclastic flows, and surges in the danger areas already hit. Some areas designated as dangerous, which have not so far seen heavy destruction, may eventually get buried.
But according to recent reports, tiny green shoots can be seen shoving their way out from under the ash where pyroclastic flows have wiped out whole hillsides of tropical forest. Ecologists say that it takes 40 years for a tropical forest to replenish itself following volcanic destruction. And 40 years, at least in volcano time, is no time at all. In addition, the volcanic ash will leave the soil considerably richer. It is not by chance that many of those 19 casualties were farmers reaping their fields beneath the falling ash. These were precisely the areas that were wiped out by earlier volcanic destruction ages ago: the most fertile ground in Montserrat, the most easily planted due to its flatness. Which is why Plymouth was built where it was built, on the flat delta beside the water. Whether or not Plymouth will ever be anything more than a volcanic park for future tourists to visit remains to be seen. But to examine before-and-after-volcano photographs of St. Pierre — the then-capital of Martinique, destroyed by Mont Pel‰e's eruption in 1902, instantly killing 30,000 people — is to witness a time warp: The two cities are carbon copies, separated by decades.
As for Montserrat's former backbone — tourism — Ernestine Cassell, head of the board, tells me they've already had ten visitors this week. Cassell is dead serious: Ten tourists is better than no tourists. The truth is that there are only a few rooms available on the island (in people's homes), and only one restaurant “suitable for visitors.” All the hotels, all the restaurants, and the golf course are down south, buried in ash. Yet Cassell, who has perhaps the most unenviable job on earth, is trying hard. She's working on day tours using the ferry from Antigua. Sight-seeing and hiking. She's working on a helicopter. The good news is that plans are in place for two new hotels in the north, one of which will have 50 rooms. “If people are worried about getting ash in their hair it wouldn't be too good for them,” says Cassell. “We have to put on masks and helmets from time to time, and it isn't advisable to get too close to the volcano. But it's a living laboratory. There's no place quite like it on earth.”
Cassell makes no attempt to disguise the fact that the volcano will be her strongest marketing tool. Though it was British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook who said it best. Stepping down from the chopper after his recent welcome tour, face white as a sheet: “What Montserrat needs is a special kind of tourism. There are people who'd pay a great deal to see such devastation!”
WAITING FOR THE FERRY BACK TO ANTIGUA, I meet Victor Cabey, a technician for Radio Montserrat. He tells me about his plans for Saturday night: “I going 'cross to see Titanic, you know!” He says the ferry has a special deal running on weekends: $75 EC, round-trip.
I tell him it sounds like a lot to see a movie.
“You ain't start yet,” he says. “Twenty more for taxi, and 30 to see de movie. To sit in pit — you know pit? — de worst. Dem does steep up de price for special movie.”
We add it up: $125 EC, or $46 U.S. — to see a movie.
“But it worth it!” he assures me.
I agree: Let them watch some other ship go down.
Robert Antoni is the author of two novels, Divina Trace and Blessed Is the Fruit. He lives in Miami.
Photographs by Preston-Schlebusch