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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Volcanic Ash Clouds Future for Montserrat

OLD TOWNE, Montserrat -- Two-hour gas lines. Crowded shelters. Telephone directories that get thinner every year.

Montserrat's remaining 6,000 residents have learned to cope with the disruptions precipitated by the Soufriere Hills volcano. But for some on this Caribbean island, the uncertainty the volcano has shoved into their lives has become too much.

"We are trying to cope,'' said a nurse at Montserrat's tiny hospital, a converted school. But, "It's become very stressful.''

About 50 people were treated there for nervous shock after the worst eruption to date: a fiery avalanche of volcanic rock, ash and gas that killed nine people Wednesday.

The deaths occurred on or near farmlands that had been nourished by the volcanic soil delivered by the last eruption hundreds of years ago.

On Sunday, dozens of people said farewell to loved ones with hugs and handshakes when a hastily arranged ferry service reconnected volcano-stricken Montserrat to the rest of the world.

The Caribbean island had been virtually cut off since Wednesday's eruption forced its lone airstrip and main pier to close.

Many had been trapped on this British colony during visits. Others were leaving for good.

"It's hard to start a new life, to start everything fresh,'' said Ellen Peters, whose family was fleeing the island.

The British destroyer HMS Liverpool lay at anchor, its crew assisting in recovery efforts.

A helicopter from the ship and choppers from Barbados, Trinidad and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory searched for 19 people still missing Sunday. More than 50 people have been pulled to safety in harnesses flung from the helicopters because the ground was too hot to land.

For the first time since Wednesday, rescuers conducted a house-to-house search in three villages that ring the 1,000 meter volcano. In other areas, volcanic ash up to 5 meters deep was still too hot to approach.

Entire villages were wiped out by the mix of rock, ash and gas.

The deaths occurred in an area declared off-limits more than a year ago.

In shelters, elderly Montserratians, unable to return to their farmland, sit patiently doing nothing. Many of the 1,100 people living in schools and churches in the north of the island, the "safe zone,'' are displaced subsistence farmers.

They now depend on the government for food coupons and rations of vegetables, canned beef, rice and other basics.

Montserrat had 11,000 residents in July 1995, when the volcano sprang to life. Nearly half have abandoned the island.

Those who stayed have coped well. A coat of ash on the windshield in the morning is done away with in a flick of the wipers. Dust that seeps into homes is just a nuisance.

Since Plymouth, the economic and political capital, was evacuated more than a year ago, a second center has developed at inland Salem. Food stores and shops line the winding streets and roadside bars blare music late into the night. Businessmen continue to seek investment capital abroad.

A two-hour wait for gas at the island's only operating gas station becomes a chance to catch up on news, to speculate about what the volcano will do next.

Relief, in the form of new homes and infrastructure investment, has been slow in coming. The cost of building a new capital and 500 homes in the north is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

More than $55 million in British aid has been spent or is in the pipeline. Britain also provides budgetary support, making the colony Britain's highest per capita foreign aid recipient. Some $11.3 million in aid was announced after Wednesday's eruption.

But nearly 780 residents have lived without privacy in shelters since April 1996.

Those in churches fold up the cots and set up the pews so that services can be held.

"I have six little children, 10 and under. I would really love to leave,'' shelter resident Carmelita Kirwan said.

Some local officials say aid requests have stalled in the British bureaucracy. Others blame disruptions of a local election last year.

Expectations were raised by the election of a Labour Party government in Britain and the sudden visit Sunday and Monday of the Baroness Symons, a foreign office minister, on her second trip to Montserrat since Britain's elections in May.

"The government takes its responsibility for the people of Montserrat very seriously,'' Symons said before leaving London.

But Montserrat legislator David Brandt prefers to wait and see.

"Dependency must mean something,'' Brandt said. "Intended or not, if this continues, the British government is going to depopulate this island.''