June 25, 1997 began as a normal day in the Caribbean, and the people in the villages on the southern part of Montserrat went about their routine activities, aware of the smoking Soufriere Hills but not overly concerned. It had been smoking and fussing for months and this Wednesday was no exception. Then shortly after noon, the earth that held it back collapsed, and hot lava and gas flowed into the unsuspecting valleys below. Before the ash and lava settled, 19 people lay dead, and ten villages were either obliterated or rendered uninhabitable. Subsequent volcanic activity wiped Montserrat’s capital, Plymouth, off the map.
Three years later, less than 1,200 people remained on the island. Over 7,000 were evacuated, more than half of them fleeing to Britain where they received citizenship in 2002.
More than 20 years later, the southern part of the island lies in an exclusion zone, deemed uninhabitable and severely restricted to both the island’s inhabitants and tourists. The northern half of the island remains postcard perfect. Lush hills and valleys with the blue-green Caribbean as a scenic backdrop continues to be home to natives and expatriates alike.
A lot of Irish are surprised to find that this British-controlled isle, that lies about 300 miles from Puerto Rico, is nicknamed the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. Settlers arrived there in 1642 from Ireland. Over the years, European nations shuffled it back and forth amongst themselves, but even with a slave rebellion, the settlers of Montserrat adapted. Blacks and whites intermarried, and harmonious relationships punctuated island life, though with an Irish twist. A testament to that is the National Holiday celebrated March 17 commemorating not Saint Patrick’s Day as much as a slave revolt.
Volcanoes aren’t unique to the Caribbean. Hundreds of Islands throughout the world were sired by volcanoes. Hawaii is, perhaps, the most famous. James Michener’s Hawaii provides an absorbing account of the islands. He not only traces the history of its people but the formation of the island itself.
It’s interesting to note that volcanoes are equal opportunity purveyors of death and misery. You can find them in Italy, Iceland, Japan, and the United States. Think Mauna Loa, Hawaii and Mount St. Helens in Washington. Mount Pelee in Martinique, Mexico, and Columbia are also home to the volcano gods as is Indonesia which is blessed with at least three. These volcanoes are worrisome at best and should be feared when they awaken. Most will bring a terrifying and deadly side effect: tsunamis capable of wiping out civilization on hundreds of islands and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Jimmy Buffett recorded a song called Volcano on an album by the same name in November 1979. It recounts the dangers of living on a Caribbean island where volcanoes, like hurricanes, are nothing to be trifled with. Ironically, he recorded it in a studio on Montserrat which was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Volcano is so popular with his parrothead followers that he wouldn’t dare not play it at a concert. I suspect fans would blow their tops.
The lyrics capture the uncertainty of living on an island with a volcano that is misbehaving. Implied is the overriding question, “When is it going to blow?” And he seeks answers to questions such as where do you go to get away from the damn thing? Though volcanoes are destructive, Buffett captures the resilient spirit of the islanders who eventually must overcome the tragedy and put their lives back together.
I hope the natives caught up in the next volcanic event find a safe place to go, and I hope they are able to rebuild their lives stronger and better than ever. The people of Montserrat are a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.
Whether you live in the Caribbean or on the far side of the world, tragedy comes to visit us all. It may not take the shape of a volcano, but it can be just as devastating. When the next volcano blows in your life, I pray you find the strength and resources not only to overcome it but, like the phoenix, rise from the ashes stronger than ever.
If you see me out there on the High Seas of Life, don’t forget to wave that pirate sword of yours in my direction and yell, “Aarrrgh!” I’ll be looking for you and those volcanoes.
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Let me introduce you to Arlene, Ophelia, Maria, and Cindy. While quite feminine-sounding, these ladies could make your life a living hell in the months to come. And don’t be lulled into security by the gentlemen they hang out with: Don, Philippe, Jose, and Bret. These guys have the potential to be deadlier than the hitmen of a mafia’s don.
All of these characters appear on the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) list of hurricanes for 2017. Their partners in crime include Emily, Franklin, Gert, Harvey, Irma, Katia, Lee, Nate, Rina, Sean, Tammy, Vince, and Whitney. Let’s hope you never hear from any of these potential killers after this blog.
Hurricane predictions, though scientific, can be an inexact science. Consider that NOAA is predicting a 45% chance for above-normal hurricanes this season. But they hedge their bets by saying there’s a 35% chance of a normal hurricane season.
This means they are predicting 11 to 17 named storms with five to nine of them developing into hurricanes. Of those, they expect two to four to become major hurricanes capable of widespread damage.
On the other hand, meteorologists at AccuWeather are calling for a lighter than normal season with only ten named storms. Five they expect to develop into hurricanes, with three of those possessing the potential to become a category three or greater.
In case you were wondering, the average hurricane season, which, incidentally, lasts until Dec. 1, has 12 named storms with six developing into hurricanes. Out of those, three are likely to become a cat three or higher. Last year we had seven hurricanes, four of which were major. Remember Matthew? My wife and I fled to the mountains of North Carolina where my wife’s cousin, John Gilroy, and his lovely wife, Peggy, gave us haven for five days.
Ironically, my daughter and her family along with my sister-in-law eventually fled their homes and sought refuge in the house my wife and I abandoned when they lost power. It’s funny how life can be so strange.
Though we’re only a week into hurricane season, it’s NEVER too early to prepare for one. If you wait until Jim Cantore appears on your TV in his L.L. Bean rain slicker, it’s already too late for you.
Because we all need reminders, I’m reprinting part of an article I did last June on preparing for a hurricane. Hopefully, it will improve your chances of survival should one of those cat three or four hurricanes strike your hometown…
Most people think the real damage from hurricanes is caused by wind. The truth is winds can be extremely deadly, but the tidal surge accounts for the vast number of deaths. Audrey hit east Texas in 1957, pushing a massive tidal surge forward while unsuspecting residents slept in their beds. Over 500 people perished. The storm surge of Camile on Aug. 18, 1969 left over 250 dead from Louisiana to Virginia.
So what should you do to prevent you or your family from becoming a statistic? Three things: One, listen to officials and follow their directives. When they tell you to prepare to evacuate, be ready to go. Two, Be prepared. This means getting your property storm-ready and your family ready to move if necessary. Three, have a plan. Know what you need to do, what you need to bring with you, and who you will need to contact.
Several things are important if you want to minimize damage to your property or danger to yourself. Cut down dead trees and branches near your home now. They’ll look pretty darn ugly sticking through your roof when you could have done something about it earlier.
Have supplies on hand in case you are allowed to ride the storm out at home. These include: Batteries, flashlights, a battery-powered radio, a first aid kit, canned food, a manual can opener, water (at least a gallon per-day per-person), prescription drugs, and phone numbers of relatives.
Have a plan for evacuation. If you can leave earlier, do it. If you wait till the last minute, know beforehand where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. That plan should include having a full tank of gas way ahead of time.
Take inventory of everything in your home. You can document this for your insurance company by taking pictures. Be sure to open dresser drawers as well as kitchen and bathroom cabinets.
Have a hurricane bag ready to snatch and run 365 days of the year because you never know when an emergency will strike. It should include: birth and wedding certificates, financial papers, wills, insurance policies which cover life, health, home, auto, and boat. It won’t hurt to bring income tax filings for the last year or two.
If you have a landline, keep a phone on hand that you can plug directly into the wall. If you lose cell phone service and electricity goes out, you’ll have contact with the outside world.
Have a point of contact outside the hurricane area. If family or friends get separated during an evacuation, the person outside your area can relay vital information.
If you have pets, make provisions for them long before the storm appears on the weather channel’s maps. Bringing them to a shelter is not an option nor is abandoning them at home.
If you are able to seek refuge in a shelter, know where it is ahead of time. Don’t guess. Searching for a shelter you’ve never been to while a hurricane is bearing down on you is not the brightest thing you could do.
Remember no drugs, alcohol, or guns in a shelter. Do bring a few essentials like canned food, water, a blanket, reading materials, board games, cards, and a sense of humor. You may be anxious under the circumstances, but so is everyone else so be polite and courteous.
Forget the hurricane parties. For many people, attending one was the last thing they did. Even if you survive, the devastation a storm leaves behind can make your days miserable. After a hurricane you’re likely to have no water, electricity or toilet facilities for days. How much fun is that?
Hopefully, no major hurricanes will make landfall this year. Just don’t bet on it. Stay safe out there no matter what the weather and enjoy the beautiful summer months ahead. Smooth sailing out there on the high seas of life.
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