MONTSERRAT, British West Indies - Many credit unions have disaster plans that cover emergencies such as robberies, floods and other natural disasters. But how many U.S. credit unions would be prepared for a volcanic eruption? Roselyn Cassell-Sealy, of St. Patrick's Co-operative Credit Union on Montserrat, knows what it is like...
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MONTSERRAT, British West Indies – Many credit unions have disaster plans that cover emergencies such as robberies, floods and other natural disasters. But how many U.S. credit unions would be prepared for a volcanic eruption? Roselyn Cassell-Sealy, of St. Patrick’s Co-operative Credit Union on Montserrat, knows what it is like to live through such a catastophe. In fact, she could write the manual on how to prepare for, survive and rebuild an organization after a volcano errupts. Before the Chance Mountain volcano blew on July 18, 1995, Montserrat was a lush green 39-square mile island in the Eastern Caribbean. Known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, that color changed to gray as ash covered the island. It’s not only the color of Montserrat that was altered by the eruption. The island, which is oblong, has grown in size from lava that cooled when it touched the sea. The same event has also diminished the population. It fell from 10,639 people in 1995 to approximately 5,000 today. Volcanos are not randam events like tornados. Magma deep within the Earth burns a hole in the tectonic plate, until it break s through the Earth’s surface. The disruption can be measured in advance, however, volcanos, unlike major storms can continue their destruction for years after the initial eruption. Cassell-Sealy who was executive of St. Patrick’s when the volcano erupted, was not caught by surprise by the event. She said, “The Scientific Research Unit of the University of the West Indies was fairly certain of volcanic activity for a couple of years based on their readings and signs of volcanic earthquakes.” Unlike in the film Dante’s Peak when townspeople ignored warnings, the local residents of Montserrat were believers, but there were not many places to go on the island. Unlike when blizzards are predicted in the northeast U.S. or hurricanes in the southeast part of the country which send people into buying frenzies of candles and food, the residents on Montserrat didn’t descend en mass to the stores, said Cassell-Sealy because, “There was no need to do this as nothing was ever in short supply.” The credit union, however, had to make preparations. It safeguarded member records by sending copies of all important documents to nearby Antigua to be housed at a credit union there. During the first stage of the eruption, the credit union had to evacuate their offices – their facility which had been open only a month and had been funded with the help of the Canadian credit union movement, was eventually totally destroyed. St. Patrick’s kept going throughout the disaster. Space to operate was found in a bank. The need to stay open during the volcano’s activity and immediately after was reduced because the demand for services according to Cassell-Sealy “lessened until government and businesses were able to set up offices.” Staff was seconded to other banks until new permanent offices could be arranged and the staff reclaimed. On a personal note, Cassell-Sealy lost her home, because she lived in what is now called the exclusion zone, separate from the liveable part of the island. Everything she owned was buried under the lava. It is still illegal to enter this zone. Although living through a volcanic eruption is a fairly dramatic event, Cassell-Sealy says, “We were never really exposed to any eminent danger,” although residents had to deal with ash and air pollution. In retrospect Cassell-Sealy reports mixed emotions. “The explosive phase of the volcanic activity was both frightening and exciting. We had a desire to hold on to our country and our way of life. At the same time we did not know what the fall out of the volcanic activity was. We had the feeling that we were being forced off the island sometimes for our own good, but we did not want to leave our paradise behind. We were tired of the huge ash clouds and we were fearful of the rumors of silicosis and cancer as a result of the volcanic ash. Cleaning up ash and washing away ash and driving in ash was also a pain. The sound of the volcano also was a little unnerving, and the destruction of the landscape and the deaths that occurred was also hard to take.” Cassell-Sealy recalls that the hardships involved a diminution from a comfortable lifestyle. Many people were living in shelters, and of course there were job losses as the lava swept away plantations and businesses. Tourism stopped. Although the British tried to help, Cassell-Sealy expressed some resentment of the British telling the residents of the island “how to live.” Some of the government direction was to reduce the island’s dependency on imports and the outflow of foreign currency. Emphasis was placed on farming including raising animals and chickens as well as developing the fishing industry. Being an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, the U.K. offered the people of Montserrat a chance to move to Britain and start over. Many residents grabbed the opportunity. This meant saying good-bye to old friends as well as losing members of the credit union. St. Patrick’s needed to tackle its flight of capital. Many of those who left needed their money to start over. St. Patrick’s was less hurt than the other financial institutions. Cassell-Sealy says, “We were able to convince our members that if they moved to another Caribbean island that they would be able to get their money there from any credit union. Even those members who migrated to England left money here because they had access to it by sending an email, a letter or a phone call.” Cassell-Sealy credits some of the success with the good relationship with their members. She said, “We are very intimate with our membership, so we know their voices.” It is still not over. Cassell-Sealy said, “There are no violent explosions but the lava dome is still growing we still have rock falls and pyroclastic flows, but the `Safe Zone’ is rarely impacted and we very rarely get ashfalls. If the wind blows in the right direction, it does tend to keep the ash away from us. But lately there has been growth on the side of the volcano facing the Safe Zone and that is why people were relocated from the fringes of the Exclusion Zone.” Although Cassell-Sealy is not bitter, she does get frustrated at the reaction of the international community. “Our biggest problem in Montserrat has been that the international press is only interested in Montserrat when we have something negative to report. The incredible redevelopment and the great spirit of survival are never told. Only the story of explosion and doom and gloom.” However, the international credit union movement responded with backing and support. Cassell-Sealy had a chance to thank the Irish Credit Union movement for the support at the World Council of Credit Union’s International Leadership Conference in Poland in 2002. The remaining financial institutions vie for the business of the 5,000 citizens who stayed on the island. They include the Royal Bank of Canada, the Bank of Montserrat, the Montserrat Building Society and St. Patrick’s. Barclay’s Bank pulled out after the second year of the volcanic eruption. The reduced membership of the credit unionmeans that the staff of St. Patrick’s has been halved to five employees. As for the future, Cassell-Sealy is optimistic for both the credit union which is doing well and for herself. “I am one of many Montserratians who is convinced that there is a future for Montserrat. And besides it is difficult to leave Paradise just like that.” Although volcanic activity on Montserrat hasn’t stopped, tourism is on the rise, according to a December 30, 2002 CNN report. People now come to the island to see a volcano. Tourism in 2001 had crept back to about 15,000. It was at 36,000 before the explosion. -
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