Before an unforeseen event changed everything in the mid-1990s, the Caribbean island of Montserrat was a tourist destination on the rise. Its quaint vibe and lack of major hotels offered an alternative to the mainstream all-inclusive-resort scene that dominated many neighboring islands. But when the long-dormant Soufrière Hills began to erupt in 1995, Montserrat's course was altered drastically.
The initial eruption was not a one-time event. The volcano continued to spew ash for four years, with major explosions during that time destroying a number of hamlets and the island's main airport. The ongoing eruption also caused the evacuation of the city of Plymouth, the only major population center on Montserrat.
The volcano has continued to rumble to this day. Its ongoing activity has made Plymouth a kind of Caribbean version of Pompeii. Because the Soufrière Hills could explode again at any moment, a large part of the island, including Plymouth, has been made an Exclusion Zone. Visiting any part of this area is simply not allowed, and people who try to enter can be arrested.
The volcanic ash-covered remains of Plymouth, the abandoned village wrecked by Soufrière Hills volcano. (Photo: Mike Schinkel/Flickr)
This means that even the former residents of Plymouth (many of whom have moved to other islands since the evacuation) have not been back to their abandoned homes. The whole city, now covered in feet of muddy ash, sits completely vacant and eerily still.
Because of the aforementioned Exclusion Zone, it is impossible to get a close look at this modern day version of Pompeii. Boat tours allow people a glimpse of the seaside ghost town, including the spire of its church, which is now almost completely buried under layers of mud-like ash.
Electronics covered with volcano ash from Soufrière Hills volcano. (Photo: Patrick Hawks/Flickr)
Plymouth, the volcano itself, and other destroyed areas can be viewed (with binoculars) from outlooks on Jack Boy Hill and Garibaldi Hill. The once-famous Belham Valley Golf Course, whose fairways drew famous professionals in its pre-volcano heyday, now sits buried along the route to Garibaldi Hill. Even here, outside of the main Exclusion Zone, there are dangers from the volcano itself and from the unstable, ash-covered grounds (especially after a rain storm).
Though Montserrat has the most dramatic ruins in the Caribbean, a town on its Antillean neighbor, Martinique, has also earned comparisons to Pompeii.
Martinique's volcano, Mount Pelée, was responsible for one of worst natural disasters in the Americas during the 20th century. A 1902 eruption covered the town of Saint Pierre with burning ash in a matter of minutes, killing all but one of its 30,000 inhabitants.
A stone structure that survived the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée. (Photo: Antoine Hubert/Flickr)
But people eventually returned to Saint Pierre, so it was not abandoned in the same way that Plymouth was. A handful of the ruins from the tragic 1902 disaster still remain, including a bunker-like jail, the thick walls of which protected the eruption's sole survivor. The ruins cover two terraced areas, and a nearby volcano museum (Musée Volcanologique) offers exhibits about the eruption and artifacts that survived the blast.
Both Plymouth and Saint Pierre are standing examples of the power of volcanoes and proof that Pompeii-like eruptions can still happen in modern times.
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