Ryan Schuessler

20 years after Montserrat volcano eruption, many still in shelter housing

As Montserrat charts its future, much of population remains in 'temporary' shelter housing

BRADES, Montserrat — Leonara John wishes she could be back in her garden.

The 71-year-old grandmother longs for her old life in Montserrat, before the Soufrière Hills volcano began erupting in 1995, destroying two-thirds of the island — including her village — and displacing thousands. Sitting outside the small kitchen where she sells goat water, a local stew, John remembered her old home, her garden — the eruption, the evacuation, the shelters — and hearing about the free one-way tickets to a new life in London in 1996.

“I want[ed] to stay,” she said. Her husband died shortly after the first eruptions. “I didn’t want to go. Maybe because I lost my husband so suddenly. I wanted to stay with my children.”

Like much of the city, a church in Plymouth, Montserrat's abandoned capital, is slowly being buried by ash flows from the volcano.
Ryan Schuessler

John doesn’t regret her decision — Montserrat is “green, quiet, and nice,” she said. But life still isn’t easy. With the population having shrunk to just 1,200 people (from 12,000) after Montserrat’s capital Plymouth and other villages were destroyed by pyroclastic flows in 1997, killing 19, John moved into hastily built, “temporary” emergency housing in 1998. Almost two decades later, she and her son still live there — not impoverished, but, like many Montserratians in similar situations, they are one strong hurricane from losing everything all over again.

“Many of the houses built were improperly built, and need to be rebuilt,” said Montserrat Premier Donaldson Romeo, whose government was elected at the end of 2014. “We’ve inherited a 20-year-old problem when it comes to housing,”

A ride on one of the vans-turned-buses — the closest thing to public transportation on the mountainous island — reveals a nation of contrasts, and not just when it comes to the riverbeds gray with volcanic ash overlooked by lush green forests. Within the northern part of the 40-square-mile island, one can find homes without electricity and running water within minutes of seaside villas.

Several foreign governments contributed funds to build the settlement of Lookout for Montserratians displaced by the island's devastating volcano eruptions, but a housing shortage persists.
Ryan Schuessler

Montserrat’s population has grown to nearly 5,000 people since the eruption — mostly due to an influx of immigrants from other Caribbean nations seeking work or stability in a country with a relatively low crime rate — but there are some 500 people still on a list for government housing assistance on the island, a British Overseas Territory some 30 miles from Antigua. Many live in the meant-to-be-temporary homes like John’s — a step up from the crowded, unsanitary emergency shelters in the island’s schools and churches, but built out of light wood paneling not meant to withstand the elements for more than a few years.

“I think people have passed on because of poor housing in Montserrat,” said Housing Minister Claude Hogan of the perils that can be associated with inadequate housing materials in a tropical climate: hurricanes, leaks and insects. There is also an increased risk of fire in the wood structures. Hogan said his office is pushing for comprehensive housing legislation by the end of the year, but did not provide details on their plans.

Since the eruption, Montserrat has been heavily dependent on aid from the United Kingdom, which makes up most of the island government’s annual budget and funds development projects such as the new airport and geothermal energy infrastructure. Over the past two decades, the governments of the United Kingdom, European Union, Cuba and other Caribbean countries have contributed to the development of a new settlement in the north, now largely populated by once-displaced Montserratians, in the hopes of alleviating the housing shortage.

There have been five governments in Montserrat since the volcano began erupting. The island’s administration works with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development to identify and secure funding for development projects. The Montserratian government has built homes and sold them at a loss, but a housing shortage still persists as aid monies are prioritized for other projects.

There have also been accusations by British aid workers and some Montserratians of misuse of financial aid, as well as concerns about corruption that many believe is contributing to the island’s sluggish recovery.

Montserratian men play dominoes on a Friday afternoon.
Ryan Schuessler

Many Montserratians work for the government, funded by the United Kingdom. Otherwise, income on the island largely consists of a patchwork of jobs, including taxi drivers, day laborers, running a small bars or restaurant, or selling homegrown produce along the road. The tourism sector, while growing, remains a small part of the economy, as access to the island consists of ferry or eight-seat air service from Antigua — weather permitting.

Montserrat’s housing shortage is also rooted in the island’s traditions, said Rose Willock, a prominent radio announcer on the island. Land ownership is valued, and property is passed between family members. If another person wants to buy a new piece of land, tradition dictates that everyone in the family must agree to sell, she said.

So when the volcano forced the evacuation of two-thirds of the island — its most populated areas — to shelters in the largely rural north, accessible land on the 40-square-mile island became precious for those who stayed, as much of it was already privately owned. Having lost her own home to the volcano, Willock heard a friend in the north was parsing up his land and selling it piece-by-piece and got one of the last plots.

“I never would have dreamt I would own land in the north,” she recalled. The stretch of road through Brades, now the center of government, is peppered with businesses and new homes like Willock’s. She said she is one of the lucky ones.

According to the 2011 census in Montserrat, only half of Montserrat’s population owns the housing in which they live. 

“We need population. We need people,” said Cecil Wade, a 55-year-old taxi driver and leather craftsman. “Montserrat will come back once housing is available. There are lots of people in England who would like to come back, but the problem is they don’t have land because they came from the volcanic side that got destroyed. They need land to come back.”

A bar in the village of Salem switches on the lights for the Friday night crowd.
Ryan Schuessler

Despite the challenges, a small number of Montserratians have returned to the island. Veta Wade came back. She never could get used to the cold.

She was just a teenager when her country was thrown into a crisis. Schools in the country’s north were turned into shelters, and many of Montserrat’s students like Veta were sent to the United Kingdom so they could keep going to school. Bundled up “like the Michelin Man,” Wade finished secondary school, university, then got a job in London. But year after year, she never got used to the cold, and came back to Montserrat permanently in 2011.

“I always wanted to come back,” Wade said. “I remember applying for this degree to do management studies, because I wanted to play a part in my island’s redevelopment. So I always thought I’d want to come back home.”

Delbert Williams, a 21-year-old police officer who moved with his family to St. Vincent during the eruptions, returned in 2001 at the age of 14.

“I was born here,” he said when asked why he returned. “My mother is from here.” Williams recently purchased pigs and one day hopes to be a farmer. Much of Montserrat’s agricultural sector was destroyed during the volcano, and most of the island’s produce is imported from nearby Dominica.

The United Kingdom has invested more than £400 million ($580 million) into Montserrat’s redevelopment since the volcano began erupting, but long-term development and economic stability remain elusive.

“It’s not so easy still,” Leonara John said. “But I make it do.”

Montserrat’s future may be vague. But at least it does have a future — a fact that seemed uncertain as its capital burned, as residents like Leonara John were moved into crowded shelters, and as young people like Veta Wade were sent to England.

“We talk now that we want this whole area to be redeveloped, and we’re looking for foreign investors, which I think is great,” Veta Wade said. “But I think we must not forget how much Montserratians themselves have reinvested in this country. And it’s those investments that have allowed me to be back home — the fact that they didn’t abandon the island, when it probably would have been a cheaper deal to have everybody just go to England.”

She added: “But people remained here, and thank God for that.”

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