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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deadly Volcanic Explosions Leave Caribbean Isle in Ruins

SALEM, Montserrat -- The long-abandoned capital lies in ruins, destroyed a week ago by a tide of volcanic ash and superheated gas. Nearly two-thirds of the island's population has been evacuated, and the 4,000 people who remain now worry that all of their tiny Caribbean island may soon be unfit for human habitation.


"The edge of the uninhabitable zone keeps moving further and further north," Margaret Wilson, a longtime resident, said Friday morning, just minutes before the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted again. It sent an ominous cloud mushrooming 35,000 feet into the sky, blotted out the sun and rained ash and pebbles all over this British colony.


"We've got no port anymore, no government buildings, no hospital and no airport," she added. "So you wonder how much longer we're going to be able to hang on."


Montserrat was often called "The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean" in honor of both the Irish colonists who settled here in the mid-1600s and the lush landscape that attracted upscale tourists. For two years, since the volcano awoke from four centuries of dormancy, the residents have been confronting disaster. But over the last two months, the situation here, 350 miles southeast of Puerto Rico, has taken a sharp turn again for the worse.


On June 25, Soufriere began spewing a river of ash, rock and gas, heated to temperatures as high as 900 degrees Fahrenheit, down its slopes at speeds of more than 100 miles an hour. Those lethal "pyroclastic flows," as volcanologists call them, left at least 10 people dead and forced the abandonment of several villages. Another 9 people are missing and presumed buried under volcanic debris.


Jill Norton, the deputy chief of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, said there is always the possibility that the volcano could shift its pattern and suddenly stop erupting, as it did on Saturday, when a predicted "large event" failed to materialize.