A woman looks at the rear window of her car, broken by a flying rock from the nearby Soufriere Hills Volcano, Montserrat, on Saturday. Photo from the Trinidad Express website
Nearly eleven years ago, Montserrat’s long-dormant Soufriere Hills Volcano began erupting for the first time in the island's recorded history. A series of pyroclastic flows and sometimes violent eruptions of ash and gases covered much of the southern part of Montserrat, including the capital, Plymouth, rendering it uninhabitable. More than half the population fled, and those who remained were forced to relocate to the northern end of the small island (just one and a half times the size of Manhattan), out of the volcano's range. The volcano is still very much active, though in recent years it's been relatively quiet, with small ash eruptions and pyroclastic flows every six or nine months, and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) keeps a close watch on Soufriere's rumblings.
Last Saturday morning, at about 6.00 a.m., the vulcanologists at the MVO noticed signs of increased activity, and at about 7.20 a.m. the lava dome that had been growing from the main peak collapsed, triggering a pyroclastic flow to the east and emitting a big cloud of ash. Global Voices Caribbean editor Georgia Popplewell, visiting St. Kitts, about sixty miles northwest of Montserrat, heard about the eruption in a casual conversation and posted a short summary of the volcano's recent activity, asking readers to leave comments with further news, and pointing out that regularly scheduled flights to airports in the vicinity had been cancelled or diverted because of the huge ash cloud above the central Leeward Islands. Not long after, the Caribbean Beat blog got in touch with the MVO by telephone — their website was temporarily down — and posted a report quoting the two press releases issued that day by Montserrat's Emergency Department, giving full details and emphasising that the island's population was in no danger.
In St. Vincent, 250 miles south, Abeni had the TV on, watching the One Day International cricket match then underway between India and the West Indies in Jamaica (the West Indies won!), and learned about the Soufriere Hills eruption from the “breaking news” tickertape. “They say when your neighbour's house is on fire you must wet yours. Living in St Vincent and the Grenadines under the shadow of an active volcano the saying rings even truer,” she remarked. And, with the next One Day International scheduled for Tuesday in St. Kitts — an important day in West Indies cricket history, since this will be the first first-class match ever played on the island — cricket fans began to worry about the impact of the eruption on the series. If the airports remained closed, how would the players and fans fly in? “This could have a major impact,” wrote the West Indies Cricket Blog.
Meanwhile, Karen Walrond was boarding a plane in Miami for a flight back home to Trinidad when the pilot announced a change of route, as she later reported on The Pan Collective. “ ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to take a bit of a scenic route to Trinidad today … we're going to head towards Haiti, and then towards Aruba and Bonaire and follow the north coast of Venezuela into Trinidad. This is because of the eruption of the volcano in Montserrat this morning, which is spewing volcanic ash into the atmosphere.’ … Sure enough, a few hours later, we found ourselves flying past the ash cloud far in the distance.”
But the Soufriere Hills Volcano had calmed down again by evening, and Georgia Popplewell was able to report that the opening ceremony for the new Warner Park cricket stadium in St. Kitts had gone smoothly, with no official mention of a possible delay to the Tuesday match. “It looks like all systems go for the historic ODI,” remarked the West Indies Cricket Blog with relief.
The Soufriere Hills Volcano on Saturday 20 May. Photo from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory website