Montserrat: The Caribbean's answer to Pompeii?

In 1997 Montserrat made headlines as the Soufriere Hills Volcano, after long decades of inactivity, suddenly erupted and spewed up to 20 feet of ash over Plymouth, the Island’s capital.


Sarah Cooper-Lesadd

8/20/20192 min read

In 1997 Montserrat made headlines as the Soufriere Hills Volcano, after long decades of inactivity, suddenly erupted and spewed up to 20 feet of ash over Plymouth, the Island’s capital. The impacts of the volcanic eruption were felt immediately as deadly pyroclastic flows caused the deaths of 19 people and the displacement of some 7,000. While the Soufriere Hills volcano has mainly ceased activity, the devastating social and economic effects of the eruption persist to this day.

Two decades after the eruption, many still face a life in sheltered accommodation after the volcano indiscriminately destroyed homes, jobs and livelihoods. The eruption came as a surprise to many, and when the Soufriere Hills Volcano spouted ash, lava and deadly gases into the air and the island thousands were forced to abandon their homes and seek refuge in nearby Caribbean islands and the United Kingdom. Those that stayed behind saw their lives change overnight as the country was thrown into a crisis and half the island’s population were forced to evacuate as volcanic lava caused fires and mudflows, resulting in injuries and deaths. Schools in the country’s north were turned into shelters and many of Montserrat’s students were sent to the United Kingdom to continue their education.

At the time of the eruption, the Caribbean destination was home to 12,000 residents with most inhabitants occupying the south. The eruption saw the destruction of 17 settlements with the previous capital, the now buried city of Plymouth, dubbed a modern-day Pompeii. In the aftermath, the British led the aid effort deploying HMS Liverpool and leading the effort in evacuating Montserrat’s population to other islands: including thousands to Antigua and Barbuda and 4,000 to the United Kingdom. While British aid was crucial to many islanders’ futures, the island witnessed a rapid population decline, from a peak of 12,000 to 2,000 following the eruption and 5,000 today.

Since the eruption Montserrat has been heavily dependent on aid from the United Kingdom, which still accounts for much of government revenue. Over the past two decades governments of the UK, EU, Cuba and other Caribbean countries have played a decisive role in rebuilding the country and contributing to the development of new settlements in the north with British taxpayers forking out more than £400m in aid to the island. A new airport and housing for displaced residents have been made possible owing to international aid. The island is still facing numerous challenges, however, as many face a life in temporary accommodation. In 2016, Al Jazeera reported just over 500 people were registered on a list for government housing assistance and many still rely on crowded, emergency shelters in the island’s schools and churches.

While the volcanic eruption remains in the minds of many and despite the island’s on-going challenges, islanders are beginning to look to the future. With infrastructure and economic fortunes increasing, there is still much look forward to. As the island continues to recover, revenue has increased, and tourism has continued to rise. While the volcano will always be concerning for the 5000+ people who live on the island, it has been relatively quiet and now draws in thousands of tourists from neighbouring islands. In 2006 Montserrat welcomed 7991 visitors with numbers increasing to 13,555 in 2016. While life on the island continues to be a struggle, Montserratians should remain optimistic for what the future may bring.