ST. PETERS, MONTSERRAT — On the morning of August 8, silence fell over the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat. Birds stopped singing, and the incessant chirping of insects died away. The air of this British territory was filled by a deep and ominous rumble.
Within seconds, the rumble became a thunderous roar and the Soufrire Hills volcano belched a plume of smoke and ash tens of thousands of feet into the sky. As the mushroom cloud dispersed, the sun was blotted out for 15 minutes, and ash and pumice pebbles rained down on two-thirds of the 39-square-mile island. Locals watched the eruption with cardboard boxes over their heads to protect themselves from the abrasive deluge.
The volcano awoke for the first time in four centuries in July 1995. It has been erupting sporadically ever since, forcing thousands to abandon their homes.
On Saturday, the government offered an evacuation package for residents. Those people wanting to leave Montserrat will be offered an unspecified amount of money and transportation to neighboring islands, including Antigua and Guadeloupe, the government said.
Montserrat's population has dropped from 12,000 to 5,000 in the past two years, but it was not until this summer that the volcano claimed its first lives. On June 25, Soufrire sent rivers of superheated gas, rock, and ash tearing down its slopes at more than 100 miles per hour. Material heated to 900 degrees F. filled farming valleys, killing 10 people and leaving nine missing.
Since the beginning of August, the volcano has erupted every 12 hours or so. On Aug. 5 and 6, it laid waste to the capital, Plymouth - a once-bustling town of 5,000 people.
Pyroclastic flows deposited rocks the size of small vans on the outskirts of the town and buried the center under yards of ash.
"I doubt Plymouth will be inhabitable for generations," says Police Commissioner Francis Hooper.
In August 1995, several hundred people were moved from the slopes around the volcano and housed in Gerald's Park emergency shelter.
The accommodation was intended for very short term use - a week at the most - but two years later they are still there, living in conditions that clearly violate guidelines laid down by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the British Overseas Development Agency.
Evacuees live in plastic, windowless hangar tents in which families of four or more are allocated an area 8 by 8 feet, with no storage space. They store their food and cooking equipment under their beds. Reports are rife of sexual molestation, and there has been a rise in teen pregnancy. In some shelters there is only one pit toilet for every 50 people. "When it rains [which it does most nights] the toilets overflow," explains Eleanor Riley, a mother of four children.
Ms. Riley, like all other shelter inhabitants, receives a monthly voucher allowance of $30 and $7.50 for each of her children. "Pampers for my baby cost $10 a month," she shrugs.
To make up the shortfall, Clifford, the father of her children, returned to work his crops in the danger zone at the foot of the volcano before leaving the island in search of work.
Due to inconsistent advice from the government and volcanologists some never left the danger area for fear of worse conditions awaiting them. The residents of Cork Hill were still there June 25 when a pyroclastic flow passed within yards of a school full of children. Even after the event, the government took two days to move residents.
The chief independent scientist at the time, Willy Aspinall, hinted during a public meeting nine months earlier that authorities had no place to house evacuees from Cork Hill.
Britain has pledged $37 million in aid so far this year. But the evacuees have yet to see improvements. Following meetings in London last week, Montserrat's Chief Minister Bertrand Osbourne announced at a press conference last Thursday that changes were just around the corner. But locals were unimpressed by his promises.
"I have been to the same press conference five times in the last 18 months," says local activist Donald Romeo. "Seeing, not hearing, is believing."
Montserrat's government has attempted to shift blame for the island's sorry state onto Britain and time-consuming bureaucratic processes. But it is unclear where responsibility lies.
The one man central to relations between Britain and Montserrat, London-appointed Gov. Frank Savage, was off the island and unavailable for comment.
So what is next for Montserrat? While locals wait to feel the effect of Britain's aid, volcanologists suggest that Soufrire is likely to continue erupting for some time to come.
"The mountain has disgorged some 130 million cubic meters of material so far - about a third of its potential - and similar volcanoes have shown continued activity for up to five years," explains Jill Norton, deputy chief scientist at the island's Volcano Observatory in Salem.
All indicators suggest that magma pressure will have to be released before Soufrire becomes dormant again. Experts are reluctant to predict how and when this may happen. And they are not prepared to rule out the small possibility of one huge, sustained eruption.
Such an event, they say, could throw boulders a foot in diameter into the northern "safe" zone.
After a week of deliberation, the Montserrat government responded Saturday to pressure from the Volcano Observatory to extend the danger zone on the island. Chief Minister Bertand Osborne announced that Salem, which has already been pelted by ash and pebbles on several occasions, would be evacuated immediately.
Mr. Osborne acknowledged the chronic housing situation in the safe area, and said that plans for a voluntary off-island evacuation would be announced early next week. "This is the day we have been battling two years to avoid," he said.
"But the forces of nature have proved greater than our ability to protect the people of Montserrat."