Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Nightmare volcanic eruption remembered

Dormant for hundreds of years, the Soufriere Hills Volcano on Montserrat woke up in July 1995. A series of eruptions followed, burying streets and buildings around the island, submerging the capital, Plymouth, like a modern-day Pompeii.

Volcanic eruptions devastated two-thirds of this British overseas territory, which now looks like a barren lunar landscape.

Lazelle Howes was the island's Minister for Health, Education and Community Services at the time of the eruptions - she was also in charge of the relocation of refugees to the UK.

We've learnt to live with it... and what we have learnt to do is to buy brooms, lots of brooms because when it starts to ash we clean up right away

Shirley SpycallaMontserrat resident"I desperately want to go back, I'd love to go back. I can't go back... the facilities aren't in place. Where would I live? My house? I don't have access to it," she says.

"Every time I see the pictures of the residents and what they're going through in New Orleans everything comes back to me."

Peter Kokelaar, a volcanologist who was on the team assessing the UK's handling of the crisis, says the "tardiness of the government in making adequate provision for the evacuees in the north did cause considerable hardship".

By August 1997, he says, there were still 1,600 people living in shelters.

The decision to evacuate the island or stay was destroying the community and families.

Staying put

The last great eruption of rocks ash and rubble from this volcano killed 19 people in June 1997. Rosemond Brown's father, Joseph, was among them.

"He didn't actually leave when he was told to leave because he's not a person that would like to live in shelters and stuff like that.

"On the morning of the big eruption that killed all these people he went back in, said he was going to sleep, take a nap, and that was the last of him," she recalls.

Two-thirds of the island's population of about 11,500 people left the island - 4,000 of them travelled to the UK.

But Rosemond's sister Violet moved to a place that was to become another disaster zone.
"My sister lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, and I couldn't get word about whether she was dead or alive until about two days ago."

The Soufriere Hills volcano is expected to have a serious eruption again in the future, meanwhile, ash eruptions are still a regular occurrence.
Shirley Spycalla, although living in the so-called "safe" north zone of the island, can still see the volcano from her window.

She decided to stay on the island throughout the crisis.

"We've learnt to live with it... and what we have learnt to do is to buy brooms, lots of brooms because when it starts to ash we clean up right away," she says.

"There's something very special about this island I wouldn't change this for anywhere in the world."

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