Into the Light
For centuries, visitors to Montserrat had discovered what the locals already knew: the "Emerald Isle" was a paradise. Here in the British West Indies, clear mountain springs watered the terraced banana plantations. Trade winds cooled the quaint colonial streets of Plymouth, the capital. The slumbering volcano called Soufriere Hills rose above the descendants of African slaves and Irish and English immigrants who called Montserrat home. One morning nearly 15 years ago, the paradise they knew ended. A visit today reveals a new beginning.
Forces of Nature
Soufriere Hills awoke in a series of deadly eruptions in 1995. Plymouth was evacuated and eventually buried in mudslides and ash, like a modern-day Pompeii. The southern two-thirds of the island was condemned as an off-limits "exclusion zone." More than half of Montserrat's population left forever. But 4,000 islanders have made their stand in the northern "safe zone." Scientists think the area is beyond the reach of the volcano, which is still active. "There's hope," says one islander whose village was lost. "Nature has a way of healing herself."
Strength of Spirit
"We called him Brother Hammy," says villager James Roach. "He came around telling us to repent. If we didn't, he said the devil was gonna come down from the mountain and pay us a visit." The wrath of Soufriere Hills is seen in the ruins, and scientists from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory are now the only ones visiting. But the faith of the people here - while sorely tested - remains strong. "Rather than dwell on what they've lost," says Father George Agger, a priest with St. Patrick's Parish, "the people say, 'Thank God we have life.'"
Rising From the AshesThe abandoned artifacts of daily life, the empty homes, the gray hillsides - all are ghostly reminders frozen in time. But then a peregrine falcon is seen on this island for the first time in years, finding and hunting its prey on the ashen plain. Wild cattle, feral pigs and enormous frogs reclaim the land abandoned by people. The rainforest begins to spring back with vibrant strength. The morning sunshine lights up Jack Boy Hill as travelers return again and discover the true beauty that endures here on Montserrat.
Learning to Triumph
Many families did not expect a permanent evacuation and left behind every- thing. Now they understand better the power of the volcano and how to live with it. Every school child is a geology expert and knows the definitions of lahars, andesite and pyroclastic surges. The new capital is planned for Little Bay in the safe zone. Fresh red- and blue-roofed homes already dot the ridge. Soufriere Hills is one of the most studied volcanoes on Earth. Although the mountain refuses to fully sleep again, Montserrat is awakening to a promising future.