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Montserrat Slowly Rebuilds in Shadow of Volcano

Associated Press Writer

It was called Operation Exodus -- a plan to abandon this British Caribbean island en masse in case the erupting Soufriere Hills volcano made life unlivable.

The volcano came alive in 1995, and over the next two years buried the capital, the airport and the most fertile soil. Nineteen people died. More than half the population of 12,000 left, mostly for Britain, whose government bought them homes.

But today Operation Exodus is gathering dust -- or, perhaps in Montserrat’s case, volcanic ash -- as the mountainous, teardrop-shaped island goes on a building binge: a new airport and a 700-seat concert hall, with a new parliament, courthouse and cricket field planned.

Even though the 3,000-foot volcano cut the Buffalo, N.Y.-sized island virtually in half, it has failed to shake the die-hards loose from their speck of British Empire. In fact it has helped them gain a renewed sense of self -- a proud determination to hang on even though Soufriere Hills still coughs up ash and bursts its lava cap every few months.

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“I just love the island,” said former Chief Minister John A. Osborne. “I’m not going anyplace. I’m comfortable. I don’t have no crime here so I feel free.... I don’t want to go anyplace where I have to look over my shoulder.”

Recovery has been slow. Forty-eight people made homeless a decade ago are still in evacuation shelters, and only in May did construction of their new homes begin.

Lawmakers meet at the Vue Pointe Hotel. The southern half of the island is off-limits after dark.

But a new city center is planned for Little Bay, the future capital, in northwestern Montserrat, where tree-covered hills tumble to the beach. For now, the Royal Montserrat Police Force in Little Bay handles what little crime there is out of a rundown trailer.

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“It’s a challenge. We’re trying to rebuild a country from scratch,” Osborne said. “We’ve lost our city. We’ve lost the commercial areas of Montserrat. And we’ve lost our best agricultural land.”

Little Bay and surrounding hamlets with names such as Salem and Old Towne give Montserrat a small-town feel. People drive on the left, like the British; watch American shows on cable TV; celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday with a cocktail party at Government House; and listen to reggae music. In the emerald hills lurks the “mountain chicken,” a delicacy that is actually a frog.

The queen’s head graces bank notes and stamps, and another aspect of the colonial past -- 17th century Irish settlement -- is remembered with a shamrock on the visa stamp, an Irish harp on the flag, and a version of Irish stew called “goat water.”

There’s a neighborhood called Sweeney’s, and St. Patrick’s Day is an official holiday which, as much as it honors the Irish saint, also commemorates a failed slave uprising on St. Patrick’s Day, 1768.

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But much has been lost to the elements, including the southern half of the island and the former capital, Plymouth, which cannot be entered without authorization. A smaller western sector is open only in daytime, if the volcano isn’t too active.

Until the airport opened, ferries from Antigua were the only way to Montserrat. Tourism, 30,000 visitors a year before the eruption, is down to about 1,300. The recording studio built by George Martin, the Beatles’ musical producer, was ripped apart by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. It was there 10 years earlier that Jimmy Buffett recorded “Volcano,” an album that would prove eerily prescient. (“I don’t know where I’m a gonna go when the volcano blow.”)

Martin funded construction of Montserrat’s new cultural center by selling 500 limited edition lithographs, signed by himself and Paul McCartney, of his score for the Beatles song “Yesterday.”

“It’s hoped that the center is a sign that the island is back and open for business,” Martin told the Associated Press in an e-mail. “It’s a special place and it’s the least I could do.”

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It has taken the islanders a long time to adjust. Plymouth, on the southwestern coast, is a huge graveyard of buildings and memories. A church steeple and the tops of a few tall buildings poke above a sea of volcanic debris. When the volcano isn’t rumbling, and car-sized boulders aren’t tumbling red-hot down its steep flanks, the silence is broken only by the distant crash of waves.

At the luxury Montserrat Springs Hotel, now closed, the lobby is ankle-deep in ash.

“I didn’t want to lose an important part of my whole life, which is Montserrat,” said Vernon Buffong, a dentist who stayed on. He recalled how the islanders of Tristan da Cunha, an equally tiny British island in the remote south Atlantic, were all evacuated to Britain after a volcanic eruption in 1961, but were so attached to their homeland that most eventually returned.

Edith Duberry, principal of the Lookout Primary School, said she did not leave with her sisters, mostly because she wanted to raise a post-eruption generation of Montserratians.

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“I want to mold the nation’s children,” Duberry said in an interview in her office as students outside kicked a soccer ball in the courtyard and a maintenance worker hosed away a sprinkling of volcanic ash.

The volcano is little more than an occasional nuisance outside the no-go zone. Most of the year, winds blow the ash out to the Caribbean. But during April and May, trade winds blow fine particles onto hillsides in the north. A British government study said they posed little health risk.

New homes are popping up on the northern hills. Construction of houses for the remaining 48 people in evacuation shelters began May 15 and all shelters should close by the end of the year, said Richard Aspin, spokesman for the British-appointed governor of Montserrat.

Sue Loughlin, director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, said that scientists did not know when the volcano would stop erupting but that it was “extremely unlikely” it would ever pose enough danger for Operation Exodus to be activated.

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Ernestine Cassell, the island’s director of tourism, is busy promoting “volcano tourism,” offering the rare opportunity to see a live volcano from a safe distance.

“I want to reassure people that Montserrat has not been blown to smithereens and we’re not sitting on the beaches waiting for the next passing ship to get a ride off,” Cassell said. “Life goes on as normal.”


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