A spirited account of a natural disaster that captured the world’s attention a century ago.
Zebrowski (Perils of a Restless Planet, 1997; Geology/Pennsylvania State Univ.) details the May 1902 explosion of Martinique’s Mont Pelée, which destroyed the once-grand French colonial city of St. Pierre, then the island’s center of trade; only a handful of the town’s 26,500 residents survived, among them a prisoner in solitary confinement whose cell protected him from the lava—and who went on to enjoy a brief career as a Barnum & Bailey circus attraction. The historical literature, Zebrowski notes, is divided on the issue of whether those residents of St. Pierre could have been evacuated between the time of the volcano’s first rumblings and the arrival of the deadly lava and its attendant poisonous-gas-filled nuée ardente, or “glowing cloud,” a span of about 60 hours; blame for the failure to do so has been laid at the feet of several French officials, foremost among them the island’s governor. Zebrowski concludes that a complete evacuation would have taken more than a week, though he wonders at the official posters that went up on St. Pierre’s walls advising the citizenry “to continue about their normal activities and not succumb to groundless panic”—for which, it developed, there were grounds aplenty after all. Elsewhere, Zebrowski describes the scientific and journalistic expeditions that were quickly mounted to record the damage wrought by Pelée, and the lessons that geologists drew from the event, lessons reinforced by the San Francisco quake a few years later.
More substantial than many natural-disaster books of late, this one is for the geology buffs.