Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Montserrat...10 years later!

This week marked 10 years since the Langs Soufriere volcano erupted from its quiet state to disrupt the peace and quiet that Montserratians and many visitors to the island have long enjoyed.
The island after that day was never the same again.

Montserrat was devastated in 1995 by a series of eruptions, beginning with the venting of steam and ash from mid-July 1995, and developing into larger eruptions over the following months.
The population fell from 13,000 to 1,500 immediately as residents made hasty preparations to evacuate. Many migrated in the first instance to neighbouring Antigua and then to other countries in the region. Later, citizens of the British dependency made their way to the United Kingdom, where large portions of the population have since settled.

Montserrat today is vastly different from its pre-eruptive state, Attorney Warren Cassel said. Cassel is a native of Montserrat who practices law here in Antigua. The town, the hub of commercial activity, was in the "hot zone" and businesses were forced to relocate - many renting homes in residential districts.

"Imagine if one day with no warning St. John's was shut down and everyone had to move to the Jennings area," Cassel said.

David Brandt, Montserrat's Chief Minister at the time, likened the situation in his country at the time to the valley of the shadow of death:

"Most people lost something during the crisis; some lost everything. What had been built up over 300 years vanished in the twinkling of an eye. Montserrat had to start all over again." The new airport was lost as were the newly built hospital, the port, library and schools, which were situated in Plymouth.

Today Montserrat is only beginning the recovery process. The population now stands at roughly 4,500. Valuable parts of the country's infrastructure have yet to be recovered.

One local calypsonian sang of all the "temporary facilities' in Montserrat; sad, ironic humour. The temporary wooden structure built to house the government headquarters is still in use, as the government struggles to rebuild. The Chief Minister's Office has recently been completed.
The private sector is largely stagnant with neither sufficient capital nor the necessary population size to sustain most businesses.

The much-celebrated new airport has become a bone of contention among Montserratians. It can only accommodate the 14-seater sized planes currently used by WINAIR and, according to Brandt, is built in a location that does not allow for expansion.

Other Montserratians have also expressed disappointment that the government accepted the proposal for such a small airport.

What makes matters more difficult is that at the end of July, the government's contract with the ferry and the helicopter services that currently shuttle Montserrat's residents to and from St. John's, Antigua, will come to an end.

Without the ferry, Montserratians will be completely dependent on WINAIR's flights for all travel to the outside world. Flights that are significantly more expensive than the ferry is, and which only allow 40lbs of luggage for any one passenger.

By all accounts, however, the greatest difficulty that Montserrat faces is the incredible brain drain occasioned by the mass migration following the volcanic activity. Brandt makes the point that while many of the migrants benefited from the opportunity to further their educations in the UK, Montserrat itself is getting no benefit from the advancement of its citizens overseas.
A decade after so many locals migrated, many young Montserratians are strangers to the land of their birth.

"The government has not done enough to encourage people to come back o Montserrat," Cassel said.

It is a sentiment echoed by Brandt, who twists the problem into a cruel irony: if Montserrat's natives return, where will they go and what will they do?

"The civil service is of a particular size; the private sector is of a particular size and the government is the only engine of the economy.

"The brightest of the young people are in England and you have people of moderate talents remaining at home.

"You cannot build a country except with the brightest young people," said Brandt.

In short, one decade after the volcanic activity first began; Antigua's neighbour is still healing from the wounds inflicted by the powerful forces of nature that awoke from slumber 10 years ago.

The healing has begun but there's still a lot of work to be done.

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