Disaster Risk Reduction, GIS, Imagery, Mapping, Volcano

My career in GIS was subconsciously influenced 25 years ago by the eruption of Soufriere Hills Volcano

July 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano on Montserrat and presents an opportune moment for reflection.

I was only 13 years old at the time, but I do remember the chaos surrounding these events. It was a very uncertain time for those of us living in Montserrat. At the time I attended the Seventh-day Adventist School in Delvins. I remember exiting the classroom and looking up towards the heavens, like many of my peers. The sky was very dark that day, no one seemed to know what was happening. The picture below is symbolic of what has been etched in my memory.

Emission of ash from Soufriere Hills Volcano, Montserrat
https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discoveringGeology/hazards/volcanoes/montserrat/ash_and_mud.html

I remember the hustle and bustle of parents coming to collect their children. Unfortunately, some of us never had the opportunity to attend school in Montserrat ever again and our childhood friendships and dreams of experiencing life together on Montserrat were dismantled. My mother thought it best to send myself and my brother to live in Antigua with my Aunt because of the uncertainty with schooling and living in Montserrat. Now being a mother myself, I understand her decision.

Just as we began settling into the new norm of life in Antigua, Hurricane Luis, a powerful category 4 hurricane, hit Antigua on September 5th, 1995. This hurricane disseminated the country of Antigua causing damage and destruction to 45% of the residences on Antigua as it passed near 30 miles (48 km) to the north of the island. A recount of Hurricane Luis by Mr. Dale Destin can be found https://268weather.wordpress.com/tag/hurricane-luis/. This storm basically flattened many homes in Antigua, and my Aunt’s home was no exception. Thankfully, to meaningful friendships, my Aunt was able to find accommodation for us and her family elsewhere. So many additional complexities came about from these developments. For example, I remember having to attend school on a shift basis (interestingly, similar to my daughter’s experience during the COVID-19 pandemic now) and spending many nights studying by flashlight and candle light in order to fulfill the requirements for the next day of school.

Although, I was out of Montserrat physically, Montserrat was constantly on my mind. We were always tuned in to ZJB radio to keep abreast of any updates and mostly because my mother was still on island. As a matter of fact, she never migrated!

My brother graduated from secondary school in Antigua in June 1997, and it was around this time that our capital, Plymouth was buried under pyroclastic flows (pictured below). There was no way, that my Mom was going to allow him to go back home. I believe that she was scared even for her own safety! I started thinking about whether or not I will ever be able to identify areas in Plymouth again. Such a tragedy!

Plymouth buried under pyroclastic flows, 1997
Source: https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2013/05/soufriere-hills-volcano/100509/

After I graduated secondary school in Antigua in a year later, there was still uncertainty in Montserrat. My Mom admonished that it was not the ideal time to return and encouraged me to use the opportunity to continue on to tertiary education. So I ventured even further away from home to pursue a 4 year Computer Science degree in Trinidad. Based on the ongoing situation in Montserrat, I opted to take summer courses which resulted in me completing my degree earlier. Foremost in my mind was how I could make a meaningful contribution to my island home.

I returned home after University graduation in 2002. I was pleased that so many new homes had been built in the north of the island and although businesses were scattered throughout the northern area, things were returning to some sense of normalcy.

New homes built in Lookout, Montserrat (Picture taken in May 2002)
Source:https://www.yachtanju.com/montserrat.htm

I remember having the opportunity to discuss GIS with a consultant who was visiting Montserrat to conduct training. He explained that it was a relatively new field of technology, but it can be used for disaster management along with many other things. He encouraged me to research, applying my knowledge of my recently earned degree to this emerging science.

I delved in, and the rest is history! I completed a Master’s degree in GIS within 3 years of being introduced to the topic. My research topic centered around the “Integration of Remote Sensing Techniques and GIS to Detect and Update Changes in Land Cover as a Result of Intra-island Migration on Montserrat.” Being able to apply my knowledge of GIS to the redevelopment of Montserrat and further assist in disaster management on island, has been my motivation. In retrospect, I can truly say that the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano 25 years ago, has influenced my career in GIS to date.

Post Script:

I want to say a hearty thank you to my Mom, who sacrificed everything and ensured that I had a Montserrat to come back home to! I love you Mommy!

Mommy and I.

Learn more about GIS in my previous blog posts below:

Lavern Rogers-Ryan is a geospatial consultant specialising in disaster risk management and recovery. She is currently head of the GIS Centre within the Government of Montserrat. Learn more about geospatial services in disasters at www.lavernrogersryan.com.

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