Montserrat: The Modern Pompeii

1 January 2013

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June 1995 is a month that those living on the idyllic Caribbean island of Montserrat will remember for the rest of their days. The island’s volcano, on the Soufrière Hills had been dormant for many hundreds of years. Yet in that fateful month it erupted – and it hasn’t stopped since.

Much of the island was devastated. A further eruption followed in 1997. In a short time the small island nation’s capital, Plymouth, founded in Georgian times, had been buried by almost 40 feet of mud and other debris. Much of the airport and the dock were destroyed and the entire southern part of the island, an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, was rendered uninhabitable.


Today, Plymouth is a ghost town mostly submerged under the sludge and mire of a volcanic eruption. It is sealed off, locked inside the island’s self-imposed exclusion zone. Few visitors are allowed inside the exclusion zone, for fear of a sudden pyroclastic eruption which would swiftly extinguish their lives.

The exclusion zone extends outside of the once thriving and lively capital city and covers about half of the island. The coastline was expanded greatly by the eruptions and these areas are also off limits to visitors. The caution of the authorities is well warranted. As recently as 2010 a new vulcanian explosion sent pyroclastic flows cascading down the sides of the Soufrière Hills towards the sea.

The authorities allow so few visitors in to the exclusion zone as they still sting from the accusation that the death toll (19) of the 1997 eruptive event could have been avoided had the people of the south of the island been adequately resettled in the north following the 1995 eruption.

Image Credit Flickr User MikeSchinkel
After the last explosion the lava dome at the top of the hills partly collapsed and this sent an extraordinary pillar of ash to an altitude of 20,000 feet. The nearby islands of Antigua and Guadeloupe experienced ash falls. Yet surprisingly, despite the carnage that nature has wreaked the parts of the island which escaped devastation remain beautifully verdant.

Around five thousand people remain on the island, which is almost ten miles long and seven wide. Yet ten thousand people were forced to flee or face almost certain destitution as the volcanic activity had destroyed their home, business, means of employment or all three. Most ended up in the chillier environs of the United Kingdom.

Image Credit Flickr User signalpad
The British government launched a three-year $122.8 million aid program to help rebuild the economy. It also provided an additional $4.5 million to fund the ash-cleaning programme. Yet although these figures are large there is no doubt that that they are sorely inadequate to restore the island to its pre-eruption prosperity and some complain that the UK has done little to help or support its Montserrat (who were granted full UK citizenship in 2002) both on and off the island.

Image Credit Flickr User Pat Hawks
The part of the island unaffected by the eruption is very much open for business with everything you would want on a Caribbean vacation. Nevertheless, it seems the fate of Plymouth and other parts of the island of Montserrat is to remain buried under the mud and the ash – a modern day Pompeii it seems.

Image Credit Flickr User Nick Brooks
Image Credit Flickr User Pat Hawks
Image Credit Flickr User Brian Digital
Image Credit Flickr User Nick . Hawks
Image Credit Flickr User UWI Seismic Research
Image Credit Flickr User Pat Hawks
Image Credit Flickr User UWI Seismic Research
Image Credit Flickr User Nick Brooks
Image Credit Flickr User UWI Seismic Research
Image Credit Flickr User Nick Brooks
Image Credit Flickr User Nick Brooks
Image Credit Flickr User Nick Brooks
Image Credit Flickr User MikeSchinkel
Image Credit Flickr User MikeSchinkel
First Image Credit Flickr User MikeSchinkel 
Exclusion zone map - wikimedia



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