Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | April 27, 2012

The Silent Volcano

N 14° 44.46′   W 61° 10.66′

St. Pierre, Martinique

Magestic Mt. Pelée volcano reigns over St. Pierre

Our first stop in Martinique was St. Pierre, the town that sits at the base of the Mt. Pelée volcano. The original St. Pierre, considered the “Paris of the Caribbean”, was obliterated in 1902, when an eruption spewed lava, ash and toxic gases and took the lives of 30,000 people. It is considered one of the most deadly volcanic disasters of all time. Only three people were known to survive the catastrophe, which decimated St. Pierre within minutes. Mariners in the harbor were unable to haul their anchors quickly enough to escape and numerous wrecks lie below the surface.

Remains of cell that housed Cyparis, a prisoner who survived the 1902 eruption

The smaller St. Pierre of today, about one-sixth the size of the 1902 city, offers a glimpse of life in the shadow of a volcano. It is perhaps a more pleasant visit than Montserrat since Mt. Pelée has been silent since 1932.  The mountain is quietly minding its manners and not venting sulphur fumes and ash like its neighbor to the north. The harbor here is more protected, and has served as a relatively comfortable anchorage for the past few days. We had a few challenges getting set with a nighttime arrival in the crowded harbor, since the bottom drops off steeply and only a limited area offers sufficiently shallow anchoring depths.

Downtown St. Pierre

We find ourselves again in a very French land. Easy customs, with a check-in on the computers at the Tourist Office, no fees, no hassles about having dogs. Freshly baked baguettes are everywhere, along with little “boulangeries” (bakeries), “patisseries” (pastry shops) and “boucheries” (butcher shops).We reacquainted ourselves with delicious French crepes at a local creperie.   Outdoor market vendors offer fresh produce. Little English is spoken, but the people are mostly warm and smiling. The church bells provide a regular reminder of its presence, and a large statue of the Virgin Mary stands over the harbor offering a prayer. A nicely done museum documents life in St. Pierre pre and post 1902, and volcano-related tourism thrives. No one seems concerned about the possibility of future danger.   The eruption was many years ago, they say, and Mt. Pelée is asleep. 

St. Pierre cathedral

The town itself is an interesting conglomeration of surviving stone walls from the pre-1902 days married with newer structures. Walking along the streets requires paying strict attention as there are deep concrete gutters lining the often extremely narrow sidewalks. From an ADA perspective access is a nightmare, and pedestrians often have to hop over the deep gutters, climb steep stone stairways, and jump between the street and sidewalk to navigate around parked vehicles. Big trucks rumble along the narrow one-way streets, which serve as the major thoroughfare to and from Fort-de-France, the capital city.

Many of the pre-eruption stone walls remain, and some have been used in new construction

Black sand beaches further remind one of the town’s volcanic nature. While Mt. Pelée last rumbled in 1932, in geological terms that is like yesterday. There is evidence that the volcano has erupted 30 times in the last 5,000 years. Eruption Pro 10.5, one of the newer volcanic forecasting tools, targeted 1981 as the year Mt. Pelée would again erupt. Since we are past that date, the model says if it has not erupted by 2049, it would then be given a ≥50% probability of erupting within a given year, and a ≥95% threshold if it has not erupted by 2450. I don’t fully understand all the science behind the volcanologists’ work, but this report says to me that Mt. Pelée is by no means considered dead by the experts. One has to question the wisdom of rebuilding on these slopes.

Black sand beaches line the shores of St. Pierre

We all live with our potential disasters – hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, sinkholes – but Mt. Pelée is a constant and ominous reminder of what the future may hold.

Mt. Pelée viewed from the ruins of the town's theatre, a structure that was the pride of the island before the 1902 eruption


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