12. Soufrière Hills, Montserrat (Initial Eruption 1995)

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12. Soufrière Hills, Montserrat (Initial Eruption 1995)

Abbreviations used in this chapter:

MVOT Montserrat Volcano Observatory Team (see section 12.3.1)

USGS United States Geological Survey (American volcanologists)

VDAP Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (an USGS international aid initiative)

12.1 Montserrat

Montserrat is a single island centred on 16.75N and 62.22W between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean amongst the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles (Figures 12-1 and 12-2 [figures removed to reduce file size]). The immediate neighbours of Montserrat are Antigua to the northeast, Guadeloupe to the southeast, and Nevis to the northwest (with the tiny island of Redonda, belonging to Antigua and Barbuda) lying in between. At maximum, Montserrat is 18 km north-south and 11 km east-west yielding a 102 km2 of area, most of which is land as there are no significant bodies of water.

Montserrat's history (summarized from Akenson, 1997 and Fergus, 1994) begins vaguely, with small settlements by various aboriginal groups. The Arawak aboriginals were forced out, probably in the 14th or 15th centuries, by the violent Carib group who retained control of the island without establishing a large, permanent settlement. In 1493, Christopher Columbus became the first European to record the island, and although he did not land there, he named it after the monastery of Santa Maria de Monserrate in Catalonia. The first recorded European landings on Montserrat occurred in 1628 and 1631 with no reports of settlers, but Father Andrew White in January 1634 recorded an Irish plantation. Thus, Montserrat was settled by whites, possibly displacing a small Carib colony and probably bringing black slaves, in the early 1630's.

The pursuit of riches through tobacco, indigo, and sugar farming permitted Montserrat to grow into a British colony, settled mainly by Catholics from Ireland, controlled by English Protestants, and using black slaves. The Irish presence, along with the island's physical appearance, accounts for Montserrat's nickname "The Emerald Isle" and for Ireland's current affinity and empathy for the island. Despite brief periods of French occupation in 1667 and 1782-3, attacks by the Dutch and the Carib, and uprisings by Irish farmers and black slaves, Montserrat remained part of the British Empire and is currently one of thirteen British Overseas Territories. External affairs and defence are controlled by the U.K., but other policies are developed domestically with a governor appointed by the British government. This status denies the inhabitants British citizenship, but there are few Montserratians who desire independence.

The main impetus in eschewing independence is economics, since approximately 20% of Montserrat's budget is British overseas development aid (economic and demographic information in this section is from Fergus (1994) and ODCI (1997)). There are few natural resources, with tourism being the predominant income generator and the service industry accounting for approximately three-quarters of economic production and employing two-fifths of the labour force. Exports are dominated by electronic components and appliances shipped to the U.S.A. although hot peppers, live plants, plastic bags, and cattle are exported as well. Ireland follows the U.S.A. as Montserrat's largest trading partners. The small agricultural industry produces various fruits and vegetables for domestic consumption. Rum, sugar, cotton, and construction are also industries on Montserrat. Imports are worth approximately forty times the value of exports and cover all other necessitates including fuel, most manufactured goods, and most food. Montserrat is considered to be upper-middle income by data from the World Bank (1995).

Domestic industries and imports sustain the population which was reported as 12,771 in 1996, but is more commonly reported as 11,000 or 11,500. The capital, Plymouth, has approximately 4,000 people and the island's only hospital; there are no other settlements of comparable size. Montserrat's population has been approximately steady or slightly declining in recent decades. Other demographic data resemble the developed world with literacy at 97% amongst both men and women, life expectancy at birth at 75.65 years, and the infant mortality rate at 11.78 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Most demographic and economic indicators put Montserrat in a reasonably good position for a non-industrialized island, but there are problems. The main advantage for Montserrat is British economic support. In recent times, but before Soufrière Hills erupted, there have been few political problems and a good relationship with the U.K. The main issue of Montserratian concern has been hurricanes, including four major storms since 1899, but particularly focussed on Hurricane Hugo which devastated the island in 1989 and from which Montserrat never fully recovered (Fergus, 1994; Howe, 1997a; "Too little...", 1997; Williams and Musi, 1997).

According to Akenson (1997), Montserrat "may be considered a footnote to volcanic activity" (p. 38). Volcanic activity has built the island, producing sea cliffs which preclude a natural deep harbour, three mountain ranges reaching up to 915 m above sea level, and continuous sulphur emissions from volcanic vents. In between the peaks lie plateaus and deep, broad valleys. The mountains prevent salty winds from infiltrating Montserrat and keep the north and east relatively dry while yielding unevenly distributed rainfall throughout the rest of the island. A major factor in making Montserrat livable is the more than one hundred waterways which are fed only by this rain, as Montserrat has no significant groundwater.

12.2 Soufrière Hills

Montserrat's volcano, Soufrière Hills1 is located at 16.72N and 62.18W and, as the highest point on Montserrat, has a summit elevation of 915 m at Chances Peak. Soufrière Hills is one of fifteen volcanoes in the Caribbean islands which has erupted in the last 10,000 years (Smithsonian Institute, 1997; see Table 12-1 for selected volcanic eruptions in the Caribbean) but prior to 1995, it would not have made this list.

Table 12-1: Selected Volcanic Eruptions on Caribbean Islands



Casualties and Evacuations

March 27, 1718

La Soufrière, St. Vincent

no information

April 27-30, 1812

La Soufrière, St. Vincent

56 dead

January, 1880

Valley of Desolation, Dominica

no information

May 7, 1902

La Soufrière, St. Vincent

1,600 dead

May 8, 1902

Mount Pelée, Martinique

28,000 dead


Mount Pelée, Martinique

no information

October 17, 1971

La Soufrière, St. Vincent

no information


Soufrière, Guadeloupe

no deaths, 70,000 evacuated

April 13-26, 1979

La Soufrière, St. Vincent

no deaths, 15,000 evacuated

July 18, 1995 to the present

Soufrière Hills, Montserrat

19-30 dead and approximately 7,000 evacuated (see the text in this chapter)

Baker (1985) and Wadge and Isaacs (1988) studied the volcanic history of Soufrière Hills. The last major eruptive period started approximately 24,000 years ago and went until approximately 16,000 years ago with a widespread layer of pyroclastics dating from approximately 19,000 years ago. A sample dating from 1646 A.D. ±54 years possibly represents an eruption generating small pyroclastic flows, but attempts at refinding the site and collecting new samples were unsuccessful. The absence of historical and anecdotal evidence for an eruption from both the aboriginals and the Europeans also reduces credence for an eruption around this date. On the other hand, USGS (1997b) report that magma movement generated pyroclastic flows and created a structure known as a lava dome "less than about 500 years ago". There have also been three notable periods of seismic and fumarolic activity, in 1897-98, 1933-37, and 1966-67. The 1966-67 period was marked by inflation and then deflation of an area near Soufrière Hills, which is usually indicative of magma upwelling and then settling down. Newhall and Dzurisin (1988) suggest that the activity starting in 1897 actually ran until the end of 1900 with heavy damage to buildings occurring during an October 1900 earthquake.

In January 1992, another period of seismic activity began with intense earthquakes occurring in June 1994 (MVO, 1998). On July 18, 1995 the first recorded eruption of Soufrière Hills occurred. The temporal sequence of events of the eruption is summarized in Table 12-2 which attempts to collate the information in the references and provides the most popular dates and data for the listed events. If a table entry seems ambiguous, it emulates the references. The only confirmed fatalities to date occurred on June 25, 1997 when pyroclastic flows swept through several villages. The reported toll ranges from 19 (Smithsonian Institute, 1998; Svitil, 1998) to "more than 30" (Howe, 1997a, p. 19), all of whom were illegally in the area which the pyroclastic flows hit, but only between seven (MVO, 1998) and nine (Volcano World, 1998) bodies were recovered.

Table 12-2: Chronology of the Eruption of Soufrière Hills

(summarized from MVO, 1998; Smithsonian Institute, 1998; Volcano World, 1998)



July 18, 1995

Initial explosion of steam and ash.

August 21, 1995

First large steam and ash explosion. Plymouth becomes covered with ash and the first evacuation of southern Montserrat is initiated soon after.

October 17, 1995

First lahar.

October 30, 1995

A large steam and ash explosion.

November 30, 1995

Lava is observed for the first time and magma upwelling is confirmed.

December 1-2, 1995

The second evacuation of southern Montserrat is started.

January 1, 1996

Residents are permitted to return to evacuated areas.

April 3, 1996

First pyroclastic flow. The third evacuation of southern Montserrat is started.

May 12, 1996

Pyroclastic flows reach the sea for the first time.

July 25 to August 11, 1996

A major period of volcanic and seismic activity.

August 21, 1996

The largest eruption so far.

September 17, 1996

The first magma explosion destroys houses and covers southern Montserrat with 600,000 tonnes of ash.

March 30 to June 1997

Major pyroclastic flows.

June 25, 1997

Several villages are engulfed by pyroclastic flows causing the first fatalities of the eruption. The first bodies are recovered two days later. The final toll is 7-9 confirmed dead, 13-21 missing and presumed dead, 5 injured, 45 people airlifted to safety, and 100-150 houses destroyed in 8 villages. The island's airport is evacuated.

June to September 1997

Pyroclastic flows and small explosions continue. Plymouth is virtually destroyed.

September 7, 1997

MVOT moves its base farther north.

September 9, 1997

The southern 2/3 of Montserrat is closed to the public.

September 21, 1997

Montserrat's abandoned airport is destroyed: the runway is buried and the terminal burns down.

September 22 to October 21, 1997

76 explosions.

November 11, 1997

Explosions and pyroclastic flows.

December 26, 1997

A major explosion followed by large pyroclastic flows.


Continuing volcanic activity.

The most devastating effect of Soufrière Hills is the impact on the inhabitants' lifestyle and the evacuations. Three zones have been defined (Figure 12-3 [figure removed to reduce file size]):

Exclusion Zone: Entry is forbidden except for scientific monitoring and national security matters.

Central Zone: A residential area only; commercial activity is forbidden. All residents must be on a heightened state of alert with a rapid means of departure ready 24 hours a day and must have hard hats and dust masks.

Northern Zone: Residential occupation and commercial activity are permitted.

Thus, approximately two-thirds of the island is uninhabitable, and since this zone includes Plymouth and most of the other larger settlements, the majority of the population remaining on the island is displaced with thousands living in makeshift, temporary shelters. At least half of the original population has left, ostensibly permanently, mainly to Antigua, Guadeloupe, and Great Britain with some going to relatives in the U.S.A. The departure of many of the residents, though, was marred by poor political actions (section 12.3.2).

The crisis on Montserrat is ongoing. No long-term plans for, or decisions with respect to, complete evacuation, building up the north for settlement, or resettling of the south have been made. The main factor delaying decisions on Montserrat's future is Soufrière Hills. There is no certainty how much longer the volcano will continue to erupt or the final impacts of the eruptions, but the likelihood is that several more years of activity will continue to devastate the southern portion of Montserrat.

12.3 Role of Technology

12.3.1 MVOT

Immediately following the July 18, 1995 activity of Soufrière Hills, a scientific team was established as MVOT, the Montserrat Volcano Observatory Team. MVOT comprises participants from the U.K., the U.S.A. (including Puerto Rico), and Trinidad and Tobago who are drawn from a group numbering more than three dozen. Approximately one dozen members of the group are normally on Montserrat at any time, with a turnover timespan of one to three months (Norton, 1998). The Americans include USGS volcanologists who are present under the auspices of VDAP (see details of VDAP in section 11.3.1), with some funding from contracts with the British Geological Survey, and they brought with them software and hardware for monitoring, modelling, and predicting volcanoes. MVOT applied, operated, maintained, and interpreted results obtained from the technology (Schneider, 1997).

Additionally, MVOT includes six local technical staff from Montserrat who are either Montserratian or long-term Montserrat residents from other Caribbean islands (Norton, 1998). Some of these staff had worked as volunteers since the 1992 seismic events which preceded the volcanic eruption. As soon as the volcano erupted and MVOT was created, they were hired. MVOT's Montserratian staff have been given extensive training and the intention is that "they will form MVO[T] once the volcano has gone to sleep" (Norton, 1998). MVOT also meets daily with local leaders. Thus, Montserratians have a definite presence in MVOT, although their decision-making influence is hard to gauge. Including Montserratians in MVOT and informing their leaders of the daily situation demonstrates explicit recognition that the Montserratians are most affected by the volcano and that they should have input to scientific activities.

Training locals in monitoring, data acquisition, and observation interpretation is advantageous by:

integrating MVOT with the Montserratian community;

providing potential employment and direct participation for a despondent population;

making use of local knowledge and experience;

directly illustrating the challenges of volcanology; and

transferring technical skills to a community which needs to enact long-term volcano observation and response measures;

These advantages facilitate communication and augment trust amongst the various groups dealing with the Montserrat crisis, thereby helping to ensure appropriate attitudes and belief systems (section 3.3) and helping to overcome psychological boundaries (section 6.4).

The presence of the Trinidadians and Puerto Ricans on MVOT, in addition to the Montserratians, is important, not only to transfer technology and technical skills to more Caribbeans, but also to provide more Caribbean input and perspectives to MVOT. The dominance of Americans and Brits on the team coupled with the dominance of American technology undoubtedly inhibited the participation of less-experienced members because MVOT's priority had to be analysis and prediction of Soufrière Hills' behaviour. The work of MVOT (e.g., Aspinall et al. 1998; Baxter et al., 1998; MVO, 1998) does seem to reflect the geographic and disciplinary diversity of the team members implying that all scientific members participated and learned from their colleagues at a significant level.

These same publications, while seemingly representing the scientists quite well, did not acknowledge the technicians, who were mainly Montserratian, particularly well. In fact, before Gill Norton of MVOT was contacted directly (the reference to Norton (1998)), it was not apparent that there were any Montserratians on MVOT. Although technicians in a scientific team are rarely given credit in the academic world, the importance of integrating Montserratians into MVOT--and of being seen to integrate Montserratians into MVOT--merits brief but evident mentions of the technicians, and standard scientific protocol would not be sacrificed.

There is one clearly identified engineer affiliated with MVOT: Professor B. Voight from the Department of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University in the U.S.A. with an adjunct appointment at USGS. Professor Voight, an engineering geologist, has made a career of studying volcanic phenomena and has been recognized by the Institution of Civil Engineers (London) for his work. Discerning the specific contributions from and influences of Professor Voight is not feasible, but it is important to note that the contributions of engineers to natural disaster management have been acknowledged to some degree during the Soufrière Hills events.

12.3.2 Political Situation with the U.K.

When Soufrière Hills erupted in 1995, the U.K. government under Conservative Prime Minister John Major attempted to ignore Montserratian appeals for assistance, apart from an increase in monetary aid to the island. For example, Montserratians were provided with work permits for the U.K. only after the third evacuation of southern Montserrat in April 1996, although no funds were allocated to assist travelling and resettlement costs ("Too little...", 1997). In the May 1, 1997 election in the U.K., Tony Blair and the Labour Party (known as New Labour) won a landslide victory promising, and then enacting, reform in many areas. One governmental reform was to separate the Foreign Office--under the Foreign Secretary (one of the most senior ministers) Robin Cook--from the Department for International Development--under the secretary (one of the most junior ministers) Clare Short.

The division of responsibility between the two ministries is still unclear, but the responsibility for Montserrat's situation was firmly placed on Ms. Short. Ms. Short has set out to eradicate world poverty by 2010 and considers her budget to exist for helping "the poorest people of the world" which does place Montserrat high on her list of priorities (Lloyd, 1997, p. 9). In August 1997, Ms. Short's offer to Montserrat was UK£41 million2 along with UK£2,500 to each person who wishes to leave, plus the right to live and work in the U.K. for up to two years. Montserratians would also be provided with help to move to Antigua3 or Guadeloupe, with no promises of assistance after arrival. Negotiations were underway with other Caribbean islands to accept Montserratian settlers.

Montserratians viewed this offer as inadequate and there was particular mistrust over the lack of consultation and flexibility in developing the offer. Frustrated by the Montserratian reaction, Ms. Short--who is known for neither her diplomacy nor her ability to restrain her temper--publically lambasted the Montserratian officials for irresponsibility and greed. Mr. Blair and Mr. Cook sought to disregard Ms. Short's comments and announced a review of the U.K.'s relationship with its dependent territories to be run by Mr. Cook's department--a deliberate snub to Ms. Short. The suggestion of resettlement on Antigua is further complicated by the existence of the most corrupt government in the Caribbean running Antigua and Barbuda, leading to concerns that any aid money from the U.K. could end up with the Russian mafia, in the prime minister's personal financial accounts, or assisting the prime minister's brother to purchase cocaine rather than going towards resettling Montserratians (after Howe, 1997b).

The Economist ("Caribbean follies", 1997; "The Montserrat muddle", 1997; "Too little...", 1997) states that the problem stems from the U.K.'s poor attitude towards Montserrat. The U.K.'s response should be viewed as disaster relief to a needy region of the U.K. rather than as overseas assistance to a developing nation. The inhabitants are thus entitled to generous funds and full British passports. Howe (1997a, 1997b) suggests that Montserrat is unlivable and the Montserratians are greedy; Mr. Cook and Ms. Short should "exercise some leadership" (Howe, 1997b, p. 34) and channel all funds for evacuating Montserrat permanently. On May 21, 1998, the British government's Home Office (one of the most senior ministries) granted permission for any Montserratian, past or future evacuee, to settle in the U.K. permanently.

The political gaffes, posturing, and ambiguities have impacted appropriate decision-making techniques. Important issues such as the practicality of engineering plans, primarily land-use planning and appropriate design loads (section 12.3.3), are not debated publically enough or in appropriate detail. Political and economic influences on vulnerability (sections 3.4 and 3.5) have created many more problems on Montserrat than are necessary.

12.3.3 Land-Use Planning and Design Loads

Montserrat's settlement since the 17th century has been rather haphazard without extensive land-use planning or examination of design loads required to withstand natural hazards, particularly with respect to volcanic hazards. Hazard mapping for Soufrière Hills had been examined and completed prior to the initial eruption (e.g., Baker, 1985; Wadge and Isaacs, 1988) but there was no incentive to act on potential problems because the volcano was not expected to erupt. This situation illustrates how engineering design decisions with respect to natural hazards are often based on past experiences (section 4.4.2). As well, most of Montserrat's population and industry were located in the south, near the volcano. For example, Plymouth is at the bottom of Soufrière Hills' slopes, 4 km away from the peak. Attempting to uproot the settlements based on the small probability of an eruption would have been difficult, an example of other factors superseding concerns about vulnerability to natural disasters (section 3.3).

The experience from Hurricane Hugo in 1989 illustrates the Montserratian attitude towards natural disasters. The hurricane devastated the island, damaging or destroying almost all structures. The response was to rebuild an almost exact imitation of what had been destroyed ("The Rumbling Caribbean", 1997) without any evidence of attempts at analyzing the damage patterns and failure causes in order to try and be better prepared for the next hurricane. Montserrat's governor estimated that the cost of rebuilding completely would be US$300 million in 1989 dollars (Howe, 1997a), which not only seems excessive on either a per capita or per km2 basis (approximately US$25,000 per person or nearly US$3 million per km2), but which is also nineteen times Montserrat's annual budget (ODCI, 1997). When a single event causes such an enormous scale of damage, and considering that hurricane and volcano threats are well-known to Montserrat, the wisdom of permanent settlement on the island is in doubt without extensive social and technical preparation. There seems to have been negligible activity with respect to such preparation.

After the volcanic eruption commenced, hazard maps were updated and used to develop the three zones discussed in section 11.2 (MVOT, 1997). The population, however, was not convinced of the necessity of the three zones. Roads into the Exclusion Zone had to be barricaded to prevent Montserratians entering. As soon as gates were installed, two new roads into the Exclusion Zone were born along former cow paths. The only fatalities due to Soufrière Hills up until June 1998 (which occurred on June 25, 1997; see Table 12-2 and section 12.2) occurred in a forbidden zone. The deaths made a strong impression on Montserratians who afterwards heeded the volcanic threat much more seriously and paid much more attention to the zone definitions (Monastersky, 1997; Williams and Musi, 1997)--an example of a psychological boundary (section 6.4) which changes rapidly.

The UK£41 million promised by Ms. Short in August 1997 (section 12.3.2) was marked mainly for rebuilding infrastructure, but fails to examine whether or not infrastructure and communities could actually be rebuilt with an appropriate level of safety. The likelihood of an eruption severely affecting the Northern Zone is low (Aspinall et al., 1998) but ash has been blanketing the entire island, the surrounding ocean, and, on occasion, Guadeloupe. An ashfall followed by a hurricane or heavy rainfall could cause roof collapses and deaths (a conjunctive natural disaster event, as discussed in section 4.4.3), similar to those witnessed during the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (section 11.3.4), unless stringent design guidelines were implemented. As well, the north's land area and resources would be unlikely to sustain a viable settlement. Although engineers have drawn up plans for a jetty in a sheltered bay on the northeast side (Williams and Musi, 1997), constructing a harbour sufficient for Montserrat's long-term needs would be more expensive and would have severe environmental impacts.

As of June 1998, there is no possibility of cleaning up and rebuilding the south, since the volcano is continually active. As noted in section 5.2.3, preventing volcanic hazards is currently not feasible, and the descriptions of volcanic hazards in Chapter 9 indicate that design loads would have to excessively high to ensure safety from volcanic hazards emanating from only a few kilometers away (recall also section 4.4 and the challenges of selecting appropriate design loads). The best approach for now to maintaining a safe population on Montserrat is the updating and enforcement of the three zones described in section 11.2. Ash and occasionally larger volcanic ejecta have fallen on the north, but the probability of a large-magnitude volcanic event affecting the north is quite low, and is less than the probability of a major earthquake in the region (Aspinall et al., 1998).

12.3.4 Internet

The internet has immensely facilitated communication during Soufrière Hills' eruption. There are several WWW (World Wide Web) sites dedicated to updated information on the situation (Table 12-3). Email has enabled MVOT scientists to maintain rapid and inexpensive communication with each other, with governments, and with the public. FTP (File Transfer Protocol) sites open only to MVOT staff have permitted large amounts of data to be disseminated rapidly. Young (1998) summarizes the lessons learned from the events on Montserrat about using the internet during a disaster crisis:

The Internet has provided a cheap and effective way of disseminating a wide variety of information very rapidly in an ongoing volcanic crisis...

Good links to the net and server support are vital for effective Internet usage. In a disaster situation, lack of communication can be interpreted as bad news...

We have found that having a good Web site can generate a great deal of unwanted attention from an interested public, which can be very time-consuming. We have abundant conventional correspondence from school children and college students, job seekers and cranks...

Finally, the Internet should not replace human interaction, especially in crisis situations.

One proviso which Dr. Young should have added to his list of observations is that due to the lack of regulation of the Internet, a user should be aware of the potential abuses which could occur.

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