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24 Oct. Santa Maria
8 May Mt Pelée
18 Jan.
17 Apr.
7 May Soufrière
July Masaya
10 May Izalco
600 km
Location map of volcanoes and earthquakes in the Caribbean region in 1902.
Fig. 11.9
on 17 April. On 20 April, Mt Pelée began to erupt on
the island of Martinique and on 7 May Soufrière, on
the nearby island of St Vincent, erupted killing 2000
people. Izalco in El Salvador erupted on 10 May,
Masaya in Nicaragua erupted in July, and Santa Maria
in Guatemala exploded on 24 October. The latter erup-
tions mainly caused property damage. The worst
eruption in terms of loss of life was the explosion of
Mt Pelée on 8 May. It ranks as one of the most
catastrophic natural eruptions witnessed.
The eruption of Soufrière on St Vincent, 160 km
south of Martinique, was a prelude to the Mt Pelée
disaster. Soufrière became active in 1901 and, in April
of 1902, earthquake activity was severe enough that
most residents were evacuated to the southern part of
the island. On 6 May, the volcano started emitting
steam, and the Rabaka Dry and Wallibu Rivers became
torrents of muddy water. At 2:00 pm on 7 May,
Soufrière generated a pyroclastic flow that destroyed
most of the northern part of the island and killed 1565
people. Fortunately, the evacuations avoided a higher
death toll.
Mt Pelée began to erupt on 20 April 1902. The
mountain was conical in shape, with a notch on the
south-west side that led into a topographic low called
the Rivière Blanche (Figure 11.10). This valley
descends steeply for about 1.5 km and then bends
sharply westward. The town of St Pierre lies on the
coast 3 km south of this bend. St Pierre was one of the
most prosperous cities in the Caribbean. Its business
centered on the export of rum made from local sugar
cane. The eruption was preceded by a long series of
natural warnings foreboding imminent disaster. Lava
was found in the crater shortly after the initial eruption
and, in the last week of April, the volcano belched ash
and sulfurous fumes so intense that birds dropped dead
from the sky. Reports were issued that the volcano was
still safe, and that St Pierre was protected from any lava
flows by the ridge between it and the Rivière Blanche.
On the night of 3 May, Mt Pelée entered a new stage of
eruption. The Roxelane River, running through St
Pierre, turned into a torrent of mud, knocking out the
power supply in the city. Fissures opened up on the
slopes, and sent out steam and boiling mud that killed
160 people in the town of Ajoupa-Bouillon. About
10 000 people then fled the slopes and crowded into
St Pierre. Biblical-type plagues then afflicted the city
and countryside. Snakes and insects driven from the
mountain by the heat and gas emissions invaded the
city's suburbs. More than 100 deadly pit vipers entered
the north of the city. The army was called out to shoot
them, but not before over 50 people and 200 animals
had been killed. At the sugar plantation at the mouth of
Rivière Blanche, ants and deadly centipedes (the latter
0.3 m long) invaded the mill buildings, swarmed up the
legs of horses and the workmen, and bit them.
By 5 May, the crater at the top of the mountain had
filled with muddy water. On 5 May, this was blasted
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