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Volcano Continues to Hound British Island of Montserrat

By Serge F. Kovaleski
The Washington Post
PLYMOUTH, Montserrat

In Montserrat's epic battle between man and nature, nature - in the form of the Soufriere Hills volcano - is triumphing, threatening the viability of this onetime paradise in the eastern Caribbean.

Nearly two years of violent eruptions have ravaged large swaths of the island with fast-moving rivers of superheated gas, rocks, ash and boulders the size of boats, destroying hundreds of homes and burying villages. Plymouth, the capital of this British dependency, today looks like a post-apocalyptic ruin. The country's economy has effectively been annihilated, as has the farming sector, just when this tiny island was becoming self-sufficient in producing many key crops.

Since the volcano awoke in July 1995 after centuries of dormancy, more than half of Montserrat's 12,000 residents have fled to other Caribbean islands, Britain and the United States, while others have been placed in shelters, some of which are in deplorable condition. Two thousand people have abandoned the island in the last eight weeks alone following several more devastating eruptions. One of those events, on July 25, claimed at least 19 lives - the volcano's first and, so far as is known, only victims - and forced the closing of Montserrat's airport.

Over the weekend, the British government began a voluntary evacuation program, ferrying residents by boat to Antigua, about 30 miles northeast of here. Officials said that as many as 600 people have registered to be evacuated and receive financial assistance for relocation, a process that will be carried out over the next few weeks with the support of Britain's Royal Navy.

Observers and government officials here expressed concern about the growing flight from the island, saying it does not bode well for the future of Montserrat, which needs between 2,000 and 3,000 residents to remain here to be a viable, functioning place to live. Large numbers of businesses and banks have already been forced to close because of the dearth of customers.

At the same time, most neighboring islands, wrestling with high unemployment and other problems of their own, have made it clear that while they are sympathetic toward the evacuees they do not want to take them in permanently. Many people in Montserrat, however, have relatives in Britain, which has relaxed residency restrictions for the refugees.

The volcano crisis has been accompanied by spasms of social unrest and political instability here. Residents have staged sporadic demonstrations, complaining that their living conditions continue to worsen unabated, that the British have not reacted swiftly enough in helping the island and that the Montserrat government has fallen short in securing more generous resettlement packages from London. Amid the groundswell of discontent, Montserrat's highest-ranking local official, chief minister Bertrand Osborne, resigned last Thursday.

"I feel like we are slowly being wiped off the face of the earth," said Jean Beckett, 39, who has been living in a government-operated shelter near Salem with her husband since their home was obliterated by lava a month ago. "I don't know how in God's name we can rebuild from this. Our capital is gone, livelihoods are gone, no one seems to be doing much about it, and the only sounds you hear that mean anything are the rumblings of that horrible volcano."

In the meantime, scientists here said that the most likely scenario for Soufriere Hills is that its activity not only will continue at current levels but may increase over the long run, belching greater amounts of the combination of superheated gas, ash and rock known as pyroclastic flow.

"There is consensus among all the senior scientists involved that this crisis has now entered a stage for which there is little precedent in other well-documented eruptions, and that there is an urgent need to consider the future outlook and hazard implications in light of the escalating pattern of activity," the Montserrat Volcano Observatory said in a draft report prepared for the Montserrat government. A copy of the report was obtained by The Washington Post.

"The prospect of larger explosive eruptions over the coming weeks and months is significantly increased and the areas with substantial populations in the center of the island are now at much higher risk than before," it concluded.

Government officials said that an estimated two-thirds of the 39-square-mile island, including Salem, the provisional capital, has been designated as an "unsafe zone" and that the safe portion of Montserrat has been reduced to about 13 square miles.