The Mega-Slides of 1995

By Arlington James

The year 1995 has gone down in history as having the most active hurricane season since 1933. That year, nineteen of the tropical weather systems that developed over the Atlantic Ocean or the Caribbean Sea strengthened into tropical storms or hurricanes. Several countries were affected by some of those storms, and Dominica got its unwelcome share of the 'action'. Over a period of nineteen days between August 27 and September 14, the island was hit by three tropical weather systems. First it was Tropical Storm Iris that opened the reign of terror. Then she was followed a few days later by Hurricane Luis that unleashed its fury against the Nature Isle. And, as if to add insult to injury, Hurricane Marilyn joined in the onslaught only nine days after 'Luis'. Dominicans often refer to those three storms collectively as 'The Storms of 1995'. 

Much media attention surrounded the impacts of these storms on the island's economy on a whole. The agriculture, tourism, housing and utility sectors, as well as the coastal road network were badly hit. There was also much concern about short- and long-term effects of those storms on our forests, on marine and terrestrial wildlife and on the island's coral reefs.

During the period when Dominica was being ravaged by those storms a number of landslides were also occurring around the country. Two of those slides attracted media attention almost immediately, while the others were either hastily cleared or did not bother anybody, at least at the time.

Trafalgar Falls Rock Slide
It was about 11:30 p.m. on the night of Sunday 3rd September 1995, when some villagers in Trafalgar heard what they described as a 'loud rumbling noise' coming from somewhere east of the village. Upon investigating the next morning, they found out that a massive rock slide had occurred in the vicinity of one of the picturesque Trafalgar Falls. These twin waterfalls are one of the foremost natural attractions on Dominica.

The Trafalgar 1995 rockslide occurred to the west of the taller of 'father' falls. A large section of the cliff face had broken off and the resulting avalanche had shattered or shifted large boulders. The rubble, which mostly comprised massive volcanic boulders and a small overburden of clay soil, had buried the pools and hot spring at the base of the 'father falls'. The fresh boulders which were submerged in the stream from the taller waterfall became coated with a layer of rust-brown clay. As a result, a not-too-pleasant smell emanated from the river for some time. Some boulders from the slide even reached as far as the pool of the shorter waterfall.

Some attention was given to the Trafalgar rock slide by the local media several days after its occurrence. The main concern was the impact of the slide on the tourism product of the Roseau Valley. One even heard questions such as "Can't they move those rocks'' and "Why can't the Government blast the rocks to expose the pool and hot spring once more''? One wonders whether those persons knew the extent of the slide, or the fact that they were talking about interfering with an already unstable area. (The slide had occurred between the dates of Tropical Storm Iris and Hurricane Luis.)

This writer does not believe that any media story, complete with colour photographs or video footage, could bring to readers an apt description of the magnitude and visual impact of that slide. The slide had also taken with it the small piece of forest that previously existed between the two waterfalls, and the storms had left the remaining vegetation in the area badly damaged. Mark you, a visitor from Holland who got his first glimpse of Trafalgar Falls on 11th September 1995 (i.e. a few days after the slide and storms) did not find anything unusual with the appearance of the waterfall and its surroundings.

For someone who knew Trafalgar Falls before 3rd September 1995, the visual impact of the slide was heart-breaking. However, twenty-one months later, a first-time visitor to the Trafalgar Falls may not even notice that the rocks are freshly exposed. The cliff face has already begun to weather and Mother Nature has started to dress up the fallen boulders with small ferns and other colonizing plants. The possibilities of those rocks ever shifting during a flood stage of the river, resulting in the opening up of the pool and the hot spring seem farfetched. Furthermore, only time will visually heal the scars created by the slide.

The Solomon Slide
In the early hours of Monday 11th September 1995, another major slide occurred, this time in the area known as Solomon, just north of the village of Pointe Michel. That landslide immediately made the news as it had cut off road access to four southern communities (Pointe Michel, Gallion and the fishing villages of Soufriere and Scotts Head. Only a few days before, during the passage of Hurricane Luis, a falling rock in the same area caused serious head injury to a young girl from Pointe Michel.

The 1995 Pointe Michel slide occurred on the day when schools were scheduled to reopen after the long summer vacation. It had also prevented commuters from those villages from getting to their various job sites in Roseau and beyond. Some persons became ingenious and used a make-shift ferry of dug-out canoes to shuttle interested persons around the slide.

As a result of the disastrous situation created by the slide, quick action had to be taken by the authorities. The debris had to be cleared in order to restore road communication between the four communities and the rest of Dominica. The slide had occurred in an area that still continues to be quarried for 'tarrish', a loose volcanic material that is used as an aggregate and in road construction.

The Carholm Pumice Slide
A third major slide - and possibly the largest slide in Dominica this century - also occurred during the period of The Storms of 1995. It severed access along the Layou-Carholm Road. Although this road, which leads to one of Dominica's largest banana producing areas had been cut off, the farmers could still drive to Carholm from Salisbury, or via the Mero-Cuba Road. That slide did not receive any media attention until eighteen months following its occurrence.

The Carholm Slide was actually made up of one very wide landslide and another slide of smaller proportions. These slides resulted in several thousand tons of pumice sand and a small amount of clay coming to settle - at least temporarily - at the foot of slide. The affected area is in the watershed of a small tributary of the main Layou River. That small stream (Matthieu) has been responsible for bringing down the several tons of sediment down into the main course of the river.

As a result, all of the pools in the Layou River downstream of the slide became heavily silted. This eventually drew much attention from farmers, villagers from Layou, persons going to enjoy the pool below the suspension bridge, as well as persons travelling along the West Coast Road. 

The effects of that slide can best be seen in the estuary of the Layou River, where small islands of mostly pumice sand have surfaced above the water from the accumulating sediment. Measurements made by the Forestry and Wildlife Division reveal that a section of the river bed under the Hillsborough West Bridge had risen by some 4ft between May and October 1996. By March 1997, a small convex beach had formed from the southern (left hand) bank of the river in the Hillsborough area. It measured over 100 metres in length and 22 metres at the widest, and reduced the width of the river by some 44% in that particular area.

Until recently, it had become customary for children and youths to boat up the Layou River past the Hillsborough Bridges. However, from 1996 young children can now wade across the river estuary, a stretch of river that may have been 6ft deep before the Carholm landslide occurred.

The three slides described above were of different magnitudes, and had different environmental and other impacts. The impacts at Trafalgar and Pointe Michel may not be too threatening. However, the villagers of Layou remain ever watchful, as the possibilities of floods occurring in their village as a direct result of the raising of the river bed is very real. Layou village is situated near the mouth of the river.

Finally, it should be noted that the three Great Slides of 1995 had two things in common. First, they were triggered off during the nineteen-day storm period. But, most important of all, no human lives were claimed by any of the slides.

Post Script
Since the penning of this article in May 1997, there were three larger landslides in Carholm that same year: 24 October, 18th November and 25th November, as well as two smaller ones in October 1998. The last four landslides blocked the flow of the Layou River, from several hours to three days (twice). At Trafalgar, a rock slide occurred from the top of the vertical cliff just south of the Trafalgar Power Stations, and to the south-west of the 'mother falls'. That slide occurred in 2000.