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In Montserrat, Dreams Cannot Be Buried

Caribbean: Many would rather brave volcano's threat than leave island.

September 15, 1997|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAKER HILL, Montserrat — Locked in a two-year race with a deadly volcano that has claimed more than two-thirds of their tiny Caribbean island, Delia Menzies and her husband, James Pan, have lost not once but twice.

Their first farm was wiped out when the Soufriere Hills volcano came back to life in 1995, releasing poison gas and ash that struck the island's capital. Then, in June, a wave of steaming mud entombed their second home; they fled, by truck and foot, a 120-mph surge of molten rock unleashed by the volcano. It burned and buried their new farm, killing Pan's 32-year-old son and at least a dozen other people.

But last week, the couple were challenging the volcano anew. They were picking their first harvest of cucumbers and beans on their tiny new plots in the island's northern extremes--the final fall-back position of a society that refuses to surrender.

Menzies and Pan said they will run no farther, even if it means their deaths.

"The volcano took everything we had--twice--but I have no intention of leaving my island," Menzies said, explaining the couple's decision to refuse an evacuation and resettlement offer from the island's British colonial leaders last month. "I am one of these patriotic people who has decided to stay, to help Montserrat rise again."

Stubborn Islanders

The couple are among about 4,000 Montserratians who have declined to join more than half the island's population, which has fled to Britain and elsewhere during the two years that the deadly flows and rock showers endangered more and more of their land. The decision by so many islanders to stay has thrust Britain into a deep dilemma in its policy toward a distant, anachronistic territory that now takes far more from its colonial owner than it returns.

Their stubbornness forced London last month to back away from a controversial plan to "voluntarily" evacuate the entire island through an offer of cash and transport, and a promise to resettle all Montserratians in Britain or neighboring Caribbean islands and subsidize their lives for six months. Resettlement would have been far less costly than rebuilding a land that has lost more than two-thirds of its 39 square miles and most of its basic institutions.

The decision of so many to stay in the shadow of a rumbling volcano that spews ash and molten rock almost daily says much about Montserratian character, the fortitude and faith of a people who would rather risk their lives in their homeland than live safely among strangers.

Indeed, the difficulty of the islanders' decision is clear, based on how little is left of Montserrat today.

The building that housed Montserrat's government was destroyed last month along with the new library, hospital and the capital, Plymouth. Every factory in the country has been destroyed or abandoned. American University of the Caribbean, the island's biggest money earner and the institution that at one point provided 10% of its population, shut down more than a year ago.

On the isle, which was home to a highly educated society accustomed to a good life, commerce is nearing a standstill. The Montserrat Chamber of Commerce had 130 members two years ago; it has 40 now. There are just three groceries, one restaurant, one gas station and no hotels.

There is little left of the once verdant agriculture here. Once self-sufficient in beef, lamb, chicken, eggs and vegetables, Montserrat now imports almost all its foodstuff.

The police and fire departments were ordered evacuated three weeks ago, when authorities expanded the official "exclusion zone" farther from the volcano in the extreme south. A makeshift hospital in a school that had been the island's only medical facility is now so understaffed and poorly equipped that the island's only remaining doctor no longer can perform even simple surgery.

The Final Blow

Montserrat also is now often cut off from the world for days at a time. Although telephones, electricity and computer networks still function--an Internet Web site was set up here recently--getting in and out is sometimes impossible. W. H. Bramble Airport was abandoned two months ago, shut by the same lava flow that killed Pan's son.

An emergency ferry, which travels from neighboring Antigua and which Britain subsidized in its evacuation plan, is often canceled because ocean swells prevent it from docking. A similarly erratic helicopter service to Antigua at the new "airport"--a cricket field--carries just nine passengers a trip.

For many here, the final blow came last week: The island's few remaining schools failed to open as scheduled. Converted into makeshift evacuation shelters, along with the island's churches, the schools were packed with an estimated 1,000 evacuees living in squalor with few options.

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