Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Modern Day Pompeii: Montserrat

She stood at the edge of the thick tropical foliage peering down at the beach below from the hill that the restaurant was perched on. Taking long drags off her cigarette, she appeared to be about 110 years old I thought, but the many years in the sun had disguised her to be much older.

Tiny crabs occupy some of the shells that make up the floor

“I remember everything,” she said in a raspy deep voice. “This side of the island didn’t even have water. John threw a huge party with a band as a fundraiser to get water put in privately. This bathroom is a big deal for us locals because we came here for many years without one…and there are many stories about that craziness too!”

I had just gone to take pictures of this “very unusual” bathroom at the beach bar and restaurant: Ponts, when I stopped to talk to the women at the edge of the hill smoking. This little island had captured my heart and I wanted to know more. She had lived in Montserrat as an ex-pat for nearly 30 years.

“We got here before the hurricane and the first big volcano eruption. I remember all the eruptions and the evacuations. Many of our friends left but we decided to stick it out and stayed.”

She was referring to this tiny island’s series of very bad luck in the recent past. First, on September 17, 1989 in the early hours, Category 4 Hurricane Hugo struck Montserrat with its 140 miles per hour winds. Ninety percent of the structures on the island were damaged. AIR Studios, the recording studio that Beatles producer George Martin opened in 1979 and attracted world-famous musicians, (who came to record in the peace and quiet and lush tropical surroundings of Montserrat¬) was closed. The tourist trade was nearly wiped out. But in a few years, the island had recovered considerably and according to a video we watched, building were new and stronger, people were united and felt very positive about the future of the island…but disaster struck again.

As if they hadn’t put up with enough, for the first time in 400 years, the dormant Volcano known as Soufriere Hills volcano, erupted on July 18, 1995 and then again and again over the following years. Two-thirds of the island's population was forced to flee abroad; few have returned.

The eruption even continues today but on a much smaller scale, and is confined to the areas around Plymouth. Once the main port city and capital with its docking facilities and the former airport, of which the last remnants were buried by flows from volcanic activity as recent as February 11, 2010!

The structure to the right of the square building with the two peaks on the roof is the top of the Government Building featured on the Caribbean’s “EC” $20 dollar bill.

The OceansWatch team was fortunate to catch a boat tour in the evacuated exclusion zone to see the historic city of Plymouth covered in rock and ash from the series of eruptions. A three story building is really five stories, we’re told, and the building next to it with the two roof peaks is the top of the Government Building featured on the Caribbean’s “EC” $20 dollar bill.

I felt like I was back in time, looking at the ruins of Pompeii under the volcano Mount Vesuvius... a few years after it happened. This is what a city of thousands looks like mostly wiped from the face of the earth. But unlike the tragic that was Pompeii, we now have the technology to warn people and no one should have died from this Volcano. Those 19 who did die, were farmers who talked their way past guards to work in the fields and were tragically caught by a pyroclastic flow.

And on the other side of the island, things were safe.

In this year of travel, through the Mediterranean, Africa and the Caribbean, I have not come across a restaurant as unique as John Ponteen’s creation of Ponts Beach View Bar and Restaurant in Little Bay.

“I started with nothing. And there was nothing here. I mean nothing, no other business on this side of the island. The hurricane wiped me out and I started over,” John said. “Everything you see I planted and once I started, people started bringing me plants to add. The ceiling and walls are my own museum. My tribute to the island. See the Irish water cans? Those are from when this island was first settled. I love to walk on the beach and I find drift wood and things, then I bring them to the restaurant and put them up,” he said.

“They couldn’t figure out why he would want to build on a part of the island where no one else was,” Troy Deppermann, owner of the dive shop Green Monkey which is located next door said. “The police were convinced he was a drug runner and used to spend the night at the restaurant trying to bust him.”

But everything changed when the other side of the island blew up and thousands flocked to this side. A guidebook said the entire population is now 4,500 but locals said it is more like 3,700 residents, down from the high of 12,000 mostly living in or around Plymouth. Still today, those who live in neighborhoods closer to the exclusion zone are evacuated periodically due to volcanic activity.

As a part of my OceansWatch volunteering tasks, I met with the assistant marketing director for the Tourism Department. Rebuilding the island’s economy due to everything they have been through is an enormous task. She told me that they were working on events to drive tourism to the island. The largest is the St. Patrick’s Day Festival, the largest in the Caribbean. Due to its Irish heritage of those who first settled here, it is a popular and growing 10 day event.

Vaccant oceanfront houses. Owners forced to leave inside the exclusion zone.
 But it will take time to bring things back, the beautiful empty houses that were not burned on the side of the hills around Plymouth sit silent in the evacuation zone where only feral cows and pigs roam the area. And still the Volcano looms overhead, spewing sulfuric gasses to remind you it is active. Because of the size of the existing volcanic dome and the resulting potential for pyroclastic activity, the area remains closed. Our guide tells us 400 million tons of sulphur acid is pouring out every day. Every day? I have to admit I didn’t believe him so I researched it and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory Report from April 2 to April 9, 2010 said this: “The average sulphur dioxide flux measured for three days this week was 376 tons per day, with a daily minimum of 213 and a maximum of 640 tons per day.”

Oh my.

The caution is “Orange” the day we toured which means boats can pass close to the beach, but not stop. Stopping can mean a fine of $10,000 US per passenger! A higher caution would mean we would need to stay two miles out. The safe side of the island is now becoming built up and the “new” capital city is being constructed right where John first bought land, in Little Bay.

The OceansWatch boat viewed from Ponts restaurant
 “Many people from Plymouth hadn’t even seen this side of the island! The roads were dirt and we were not prepared for the situation,” the chain-smoking women said. “We still live with it. But I learned to stop worrying about it many years ago. You just don’t know when the next time will be so you don’t waste time worrying.”

Sunday is Barbeque Day at Ponts Beach View Bar and Restaurant

Historic photo: The City of Plymouth before being completely covered in 37 feet of ash and rock

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