Thursday, January 11, 2007

Montserrat Update, 6: Jan 10, 2007

UPDATE: Several noteworthy developments have happened over the past few days:

1] Situation and Developments: Over the past few days, the mountain has apparently settled down to a more routine pattern, though we in the North have now -- thanks to the shifting winds -- had a light dusting of ash from the ever-present ash-plume. Judging by a more routine observed traffic pattern re-emerging for MVO staff, they too are apparently returning to more routine patterns. People have been evacuated from below the Yellow Line at the northern rim of the Belham, many under protest that they see no good reason for such an evacuation. Many of the visitors involved in the evacuation have cut short their vacations.

2] Deposits in the Belham and runout length predictions: Thanks to a commercial helicopter overflight, the volume of deposits has been re-estimated by MVO, as 3 - 5 mn cu m. In turn, this was further cited as confirmation of the validity of the PYROFLOW simulation model, which predicted a similar runout length for a 5 mn cu m theoretical flow. However, to my mind, 3 to 5 * 10^6 averages to 4*10^6. That means that it is at least possible that a flow mass of perhaps as little as 60 - 80% of the model's assumed value is running out to the range estimated by the model for a significantly bigger flow. Take-home lesson: significantly smaller flows than the 12 mn cu m in the model scenario may run out to the sea, and thus the issue of a spreading-out beyond the walls of the Belham valley is also even more seriously to be reckoned with.

3] Moving the Yellow Line further North: Consequently, it is no surprise to see that there are reports that it is now intended to shift the evacuation line to the level of the Salem Police Station, i.e. Lime Kiln Bay. This is a lot closer to the Nantes (“Purple”) Line identified in the September 2006 Technical report [pp. 13 - 15] as the credible extreme limit for dome-collapse pyroclastic flows. I am happy to see that this prudent action is at last being taken.

4] Rationality of Getting out of the Mountain's Way: Those who personally witnessed -- or simply have seen the shocking videos and still photos -- what this volcano has already done to Long Ground, Harris', Trants, the Blackburn/ Bramble Airport, the Central Corridor, Plymouth, Kinsale and St Patrick's, can readily understand that our volcano is a very powerful -- thus potentially quite dangerous -- beast indeed. (Its energy output is in fact only comparable to a city-buster scale nuclear weapon.) Given, further, that we have already had one major mass-casualty event, with devastating consequences on the society as a whole, so one will readily understand that avoiding further mass deaths and injuries is a national security and economic stability non-negotiable. So, just as we would not protest being moved out of a war-zone by military forces, we should accept that a credible technical assessment made by world-class scientists that the Belham region is now at heightened risk of sudden destructive impact is more than adequate justification to order a prompt evacuation. [NB: My concern over the past few days has been that the evacuation was not sufficiently conservative, and it now appears that on further thought the authorities -- thankfully -- agree with that point. So, further evacuations are in the offing.]

5] Managing an evacuation: Mr Don Romeo -- a longstanding, locally legendary Montserrat social activist (a chip cut from his father's block indeed!) -- has strongly and repeatedly warned that an improperly managed evacuation can result in a further forced depopulation. Such a depopulation, we simply cannot afford. Accordingly, officials should now give high priority to providing humane, decent alternatives that avoid triggering impoverishment, mass elimination of jobs and putting people into inhumane shelter conditions. [Of course, if even the Americans with their huge resources were severely challenged by the Katrina disaster, that speaks volumes on just how hard it is to get this right. We must therefore be understanding of the challenges faced by the authorities at this time.] Similarly, a forced exit of the many Caribbean nationals who have come here in recent years and are so vital to our workforce and economy, would be a disaster. Mr Romeo's longstanding recommendations, and those of Saturday last, may be a useful point of departure for getting this difficult-to-handle challenge right.

Let us pray that, by God's grace, we will not face further devastation, or injury and loss of life. Let us then put feet and hands and hearts and heads into those prayers, as we work to live with our mountain. (And, while we are at it, let us also remember that, had it not been for this mountain and its kith and kin, the lovely necklace of islands comprising the Eastern Caribbean arc would simply not be there.) END

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