Monday, August 9, 2004

Volcanic Fallout

In 1993 I discovered a little bit of paradise in the Caribbean – the island of Montserrat. It’s barely more than a speck on the map – some 37 square miles – but it was a lush tropical island of palms and banana trees and beautiful vistas. The hillsides were dotted with the homes of expatriated Brits (it’s a British colony) and Americans, and the few hotels catered to a quiet lifestyle that leans more towards beachcombing than partying. I fell in love with it and returned again the following year, planning to make it an annual trip, and included it in my novel-in-progress. But Montserrat, like many Caribbean islands, was formed by a volcano, and in July 1995, the volcano awoke. For the next three years it wreaked havoc on two-thirds of the island, burying the tiny capital of Plymouth, and forcing many of island’s 20,000 residents to flee. Many went to neighboring islands, some went to England, and a small number came to the U.S.

At first the 300 or so refugees were allowed to stay here under the “temporary protected status” of the immigration law – the volcano wasn’t expected to keep erupting forever. Now the U.S. has decided that the volcano will be erupting for the indefinite future, and in a perverse interpretation of the law, the Department of Homeland Security is saying that the “temporary protected status” is no longer valid and the Montserratian refugees must leave by the end of February 2005.

The decision has stunned islanders who rebuilt their lives in America from scratch. “It’s devastating,” said Sarah Ryner, 59, a public health nurse supervisor who lost her home and career in the volcanic aftermath and now works night shifts at a New Jersey hospital. “I’m just frozen, and my children are the same. We are saying: What can we do? Where can we go?”

Homeland Security officials have an answer: Move to England.

Montserrat is one of Britain’s last overseas territories, many of its people descendants of the African slaves and Irish penal deportees sent to toil there 400 years ago. Citing scientific estimates that dangerous volcanic activity is likely for at least 20 years, and for perhaps as long as a couple of centuries, the Homeland Security notice advises those who choose not to return to the devastated island to consider exercising their claim to British citizenship and relocating to the motherland.

The notice also took the British government by surprise. At the British Consulate in New York and the United Kingdom government office on Montserrat last week, press officers said they were not prepared to answer questions about the prospects of British residency for Montserratians like Mrs. Ryner; her son Craig Ryner, 35, now a New York subway station agent raising three Brooklyn-born children; or her divorced daughter, Pearl Ryner, 39, a teacher turned medical technologist. British officials are asking the United States government for more information, press officers said. [New York Times]

What’s amazing is that for the most part the immigrants from Montserrat have jobs, are paying taxes, and doing the best they can to make their way in a tough situation after losing everything they had under a cloud of rubble and lava. But apparently that’s not good enough for the government, whose attitude seems to be “Sorry about your country and your loss. Thanks for all the hard work and doing such a good job of raising your family under trying circumstances. Too bad you’re not Cubans. But since you’re not, get out.”

Update: Montserrat has not been completely abandoned, and some of the tourist spots have re-opened. Specifically, the Vue Pointe Hotel, where my partner and I stayed on our two visits to the island, is up and running. The hotel owners, Cedric and Carole Osborne, are strong survivors. They’re even taking advantage of the volcano by offering a volcano update site on their page and tours of some of the re-opened areas. So, even from smoke and ash a little flower can bloom.