|| Interview with a Former Resident of Montserrat
Download the MP3 here
Interviewer: Sarah Bucknall (SB) National Space Centre
Interviewee: Phiona Langevine (PL)
SB: Hello, my name is Sarah Bucknall from the National Space Centre. I’m here with Phiona Langevine, a teacher who grew up on the Island of Montserrat and was a resident there until its volcano erupted. Phiona, please tell us about life on Montserrat before the eruption, was it scary living on a volcanic island?
PL: No, Sarah, it wasn’t. It was actually a very nice place to live. Typical paradise Caribbean island. We did have a volcano but we never had reason to be concerned about it erupting, it was actually a tourist attraction where people came and they went up there. If you were lucky on some days you saw steam and you could smell a bit of sulphur whilst you were at the crater but we never had any reason to worry so daytimes, or when you’re on holiday, you’d just take a hike up there. Or when your friends visit you take them there so it was a pretty laidback and enjoyable place to live.
SB: What was your occupation when you lived on Montserrat?
PL: I was a teacher, a Primary school teacher.
SB: When did you first hear that the volcano might erupt?
PL: It was in 1995 actually, July 1995. It really took everybody by surprise because I did not hear about until it was 8 o’clock in the evening but it seems as though from about 12 midday they started to have signs. And because as I said it was an active volcano we depended on scientists in Trinidad to forewarn us of any activity so it seems as though the people who lived near the volcano from about midday on the 18th July they reported that they were hearing loud rumbling sounds like a jet. But because I lived further away I wasn’t aware of it until the government came on the radio and said it’s showing signs of erupting and they’d need to move the people that lived near the volcano.
SB: So whereabouts did you live on Montserrat?
PL: I lived in Plymouth, that’s in the Dagenham area. Plymouth is the capital of Montserrat.
SB: How did you feel when you heard that the volcano might be erupting?
PL: I was petrified because as I said it had never erupted but a few years before that I was watching a film on TV where they were showing a volcano erupting, nobody survived in the area. Even though we lived on a volcanic island, we never actually thought of it erupting because there was never anything ever mentioned, there was no living person on Montserrat who told us of any eruption. And when I saw that I was like, oh my god I hope that never happens here and everyone was like, “oh no, it’s never erupted. No need to worry.” So on the night when I learned it was erupting I was out at a youth meeting and we were told you need to leave now, you need to go and be prepared. It took me 10 minutes to get home, it normally took me 30, because I was so scared I practically ran all the way home. It got me thinking, we need to pack. What do we need to pack? You know, your heart is pounding, everybody is in a heightened state of fear. It was really really unnerving, I think looking back now it was probably the scariest moment of my life.
SB: What kind of preparations did you have to make to be ready for evacuation?
PL: Well, on that evening we were told to just have 2 days change of clothing packed in a bag because if we had to be evacuated we would be placed into schools which were being used as shelters and churches. The area of the island that was considered to be the safe zone was the north of the island so they were stating which village everyone needed to move beyond. So it was just a matter of packing 2 days change of clothing and important documents so things like your passport, certificates, just having important things. But you couldn’t pack things of sentimental value, it was just things that you would really need.
SB: Was there a state of alert everyday? Could you have been evacuated at any moment?
PL: Oh yes there was, we had regular updates, I think we were having updates on the hour. At the initial stage we didn’t have a siren alert but as things progressed, as the days went on it worsened. We had the siren sound to tell you what was going to happen. We had coded alert systems so for example if you were told its amber you knew you had to be in preparation, you had to be prepared any moment. If the alert went into red you knew it was time to move voluntarily. In most cases everyone was expected to move voluntarily except for the elderly, they were evacuated by the government. People who were in hospital, we had just one hospital in Plymouth as well. So the hospital had to be prepared to move. So everyone that was able bodied had to move on their own. What you had to do was, whenever you went out you had to make sure you had your important documents with you because you could be on the road, you could be shopping, you could be at work and the siren goes and it says ‘red alert’ you need to move, it wasn’t advisable to go home and get these things. So everyday you left home you had to make sure you had your important documents in your bag. If you had a car you had your change of clothing in there, in my case I didn’t – I had to make sure I always had a change of clothing on me. So it was always living in a sort of readiness in case anything happened.
SB: Was the whole island affected by the volcano or was just part of it evacuated?
PL: In terms of evacuation it was 2/3 of the island that had to be evacuated. In terms of the ash fall, every part of the island received ash fall. The north, which was the 1/3 that was considered the safe zone, it was safe in terms of based on what the scientists said to us – that the lava would not be able to flow uphill because that area is an uphill area, pyroclastic flows would not be able to go that way. So that’s what made it safe but in terms of ash falls and rock falls it still received all of that but you didn’t have to worry about pyroclastic flows or lava flows coming into that area.
SB: So where were people evacuated to? Was it to surrounding islands?
PL: Well, no. At the immediate stage of it, people were evacuated to the north. I was fortunate in that we had a family friend who lived out that way and who had a big enough house to take us and so we were fortunate to be able to move to a house. I still could not take a lot of things with me because it was a case where that family was willing to double up, where the members of the family double up, so you would share rooms with other people. Other persons were taken to schools so for a while no school was taking place. It all started in July which was just at the start of our school holiday. So people were placed into schools, people were placed into churches which made churches and schools inaccessible to people to use. The only persons in the initial stages who were removed to another island were the prisoners because there wasn’t any secure place in the safe zone to take them so I think they were removed to one of the Virgin Islands but everybody else were moved to places within Montserrat.
SB: So what was life like living on Montserrat during the eruption?
PL: It was always a state of anxiety and stress. At the initial stage I think everybody was just in total fear, it was fear and panic. And you were just always very worried and very panicky. You had to always make sure you had a mask with you because whenever you had an ash fall it… I don’t know if you could imagine having bags and bags of cement being poured upon you – that’s how it was. Even if you were indoors and the windows were closed and the door was closed after very heavy ash fall you can actually run your hands along the surfaces, you can feel the ash there. You’ll be wiping, you’ll be sweeping, about 20 minutes after you can feel it again. So if you imagine trying to prepare a meal and you just feel that grittiness there. For people who have asthma, in my case I have a sinus problem, it was always just being really stuffed up and really bunged up. When you were out and about it became the case that you had to forget about appearances because people started walking around in shower caps, you know with the ash fall you put that on to try and protect your hair because you took on a sort of grey appearance if you were outdoors. If we happened to have one that was really heavy that caused a blackout while you were out, it then became dangerous for drivers because it would be so heavy that street lights would come on, cars would have to stop and put on their high beams and their fog lights. So it was really a very stressful period for people who lived there you just never knew from one moment to the next what would happen. When it started at first you think, oh my god we’re going to die and this is really terrible. But it got progressively worse and at every stage when it went to a new stage – a heightened stage – you think, oh my god there’s no way we’re going to make it. And then you sort of relax and think, yeah we can make it so you get through that one. Then you go through another stage. So you could never ever relax and think, ok things are normal now. Normal in the sense that I know what I’m going to be going through, I can live with it. You just kept moving from one heightened stage to the next. You were never really able to adjust to it and say ok I can cope. Every time you think you got there something else went to another level.
SB: Were you able to carry on teaching during this time?
PL: Yes, after the initial evacuation the government – because we were still a British colony, Montserrat is a British colony we were able to get funding from the British government – they set up tents in open fields and you no longer had schools by names. What they did is that all the children who were in this particular area, it didn’t matter which Primary school you came from, you just went to the tents that were in your area. For example, I wasn’t working with teachers from my school or children from my school, I was working with children who happened to live in the safe area where I was. So they tried to do that through different areas. Outdoors you have the tents set up, you have traffic passing because you were near a road so you had to deal with that. You had to deal with ash fall so if there is an ash fall you have to lower the sides of the tent, of course teaching cannot occur. If you lower the sides of a tent on a good day in any country that has perfect conditions and it will be dark in there - imagine having ash fall. And then once the ash fall went and you roll up the tent for light whenever the breeze blew you had all of that coming in on you. In most cases we tried to continue with teaching. If you had rain following, which sometimes happened because depending on high the ash went it would change the weather conditions, then that became very muddy. It was what they call a mud flow where it became really muddy and really treacherous to walk in. In cases like that the children were dismissed and sent home, teaching became even harder. To help the children cope we did things like writing poems about the volcano, writing about your experience, we tried to make it part of the teaching to help children to deal with it. Getting them to write poetry, getting them to write songs, do calypso which is the sort of folk songs that we sing in Montserrat. Just really doing things to help the children to cope and help you as a teacher to cope as well.
SB: So when did you finally leave Montserrat?
PL: I left in 1997. So I spent 2 years in Montserrat after the volcano erupted. So for 2 years I continued teaching and living there.
SB: Have you returned to Montserrat since you left to live in England?
PL: I only returned in December 2004 for one day, I didn’t stay overnight. Since coming to England I got married here and have a little girl as well. When I shared the experience with my husband he can’t understand why people didn’t leave immediately. He isn’t prepared to spend a night there even though things have lessened considerably to when I left. You still have eruptions taking place so we didn’t stay overnight. We left our little girl in Antigua, which was where we were staying, and we went over for the day and visited friends and then returned to Antigua in the evening so I haven’t spent the night. But I’m hoping in the future to go back because a lot of development has been done in the north of the island. So for example when I left, the hospital was in a Primary school, they have since built a smaller hospital in the safe zone. They’ve built a smaller version of everything we had in the capital. So you have smaller government headquarters, where you have your post office and treasury and things. You have smaller hotels, smaller guest houses. The airport was destroyed so you weren’t able to use planes in and out of the air. They’ve now just completed a new airstrip. So the island, we thought once that it was really small, because it is – it’s 102km². Now people are living on 1/3 of it, and it in that 1/3 they’ve done miniature versions of everything that was in the capital so life is still going on and people are still living there quite happy with it. So I’m hoping to go back and really enjoy that experience, enjoy the whole Montserrat experience and the culture and everything but that probably won’t be any time in the near future because I’ll wait until my little girl’s a little older because I’d like to be able to tell her about it and take her there.
SB: How did it make you feel when you returned to Montserrat?
PL: It was really really good returning because I still have close friends there so it was really good to see them. And because things are not as bad as when I left, that anxiety and that fear wasn’t there. But when I looked around, it’s really difficult to remember things how they were because for example, where you knew you had roads before there were no longer roads. Where you knew you had rivers and bridges, those things have gone. Where you had buildings that you were aware of, those things are totally covered because of the amount of ash that has fallen since 1995 till now is over 20 feet deep. So, for example, the area where I lived, you can’t even go to that area - that area is still cordoned off. You cannot enter that area. I’ve seen aerial pictures of where I lived and I cannot even tell where the roads were, where anything is, you can just see the roof of the house I once lived in. The rafters, not even the roof, but the rafters. And so you sort of look back and you think, how much things have changed. This is where you enjoyed just living life at a slow pace, enjoyed walking with friends, enjoyed going to the beach, enjoyed having picnics, enjoyed the sunshine. And you go back and all of that area’s gone. You now have sort of a new island within a small island. So it was a good experience but also sadness because you’ve lost so much in terms of… I mean possessions are not important but you’ve lost friends who you enjoyed spending time with. A lot of my friends are in different parts of the world because not everybody came to England so you have people who chose to go to the States, who chose to go the Caribbean, who chose to go to different places. And some of those friends I’ve been able to have contact with since we’ve left and some of them I haven’t. So it’s a case where you go back and you say, “Have you heard about this person? Do you know where this person is?” You have a lot of foreigners now who live in Montserrat so a lot of Montserrations have left and have gone away and you have people from other islands that are economically worse off than Montserrat who have gone to Montserrat to live to make a life for themselves. So you’re going to a place that was once home but it’s so different to how you left it that you feel like a tourist going there, you don’t feel as though you’re going home. You feel like a tourist when you visit.
SB: You said earlier that before 1995 everybody thought that a volcanic eruption was unlikely on Montserrat. Did you know about the risks of a volcanic eruption? Did you know the result of what that would be? Or did you learn these things as it happened?
PL: We learnt it as it happened because I remember once there was staged evacuation so I think from the government perspective they used to do - I can only recall one, they probably had more – where you had HMS that came in and they were doing the whole procedure ‘if there was an evacuation’ and they were working on one area which was the south area which is the people who would be most effected by the volcano. So for example, they predicted that if there was a volcanic eruption these people would be totally cut off from Plymouth. I remember once they closed off the whole area, they had helicopters and they had people in the army and they had HMS and they were doing the whole thing of triage and what you would do. But that was the only aspect of it that I was aware of. We weren’t given regular lessons or regular updates – “if the volcano does erupt, this is what to expect” – we didn’t have that. So when the volcano did start erupting everything was a shock to us. Like finding out, for example, you can have tsunamis resulting from the numerous earthquakes that we having. At that point someone was like, tsunamis? What are tsunamis? We had no idea because that wasn’t part of our everyday lives of being warned that these things could happen. So when we were shown documentaries of, I think it was Japan, when they had a tsunami and we looked at the size of the country compared to Montserrat and the fact that everybody died right away we were like, oh my god is this what we’re living with? If we have a tsunami then that’s it we’re gone because we’re so small it would just take one wave to go over us. There were a lot of people who developed mental illness as a result of it because you were losing homes, you were losing cars, you were learning of people dying, people who got trapped in it. There were people that still could not deal with the experience of living in a shelter where you’re sleeping on the floor so you have people next to you who you don’t know, with different moral values to you. You have young children and you have people with different moral values doing their own thing and carrying on. So a lot of people would sleep in the shelters in the night but go back to their homes in the day. And after a point you begin to feel like you can read the volcano like the scientists. You look up and you go, well it looks pretty clear up there today, there’s not a lot of steam coming out, it will be safe. So you had the case where people would ignore the warnings that were given, and they went back in. And even when the sirens went they would be like, well normally when it erupts we have the rumbling, we have this, we have that. As I said, it kept changing so they would predict it based on something that happened in the past then it would go into a new stage. So you had the case where people got trapped in there, people got killed. So we weren’t educated on all the risks and all of the things involved, we just learned them as we went along. We learnt about things like seismometers, seismic readings, about tremors. And you learn all of these terms as you went on. But we never knew them before that, we weren’t prepared.
SB: Thank you Phiona. That was a really interesting insight into life on Montserrat.
PL: You’re welcome, Sarah.