Notre Dame des Laves in Piton Sainte-Rose, France

The inhabitants of France’s Réunion island are no strangers to volcanic activity. Since the 17th century, the island has seen more than a hundred eruptions from one volcano alone, the picturesque Piton De La Fournaise. So when the mountain rumbled in 1977, residents of the nearby village of Piton Sainte-Rose were prepared.

What came as a surprise, however, was that the flow of lava, which sped down the mountain’s slopes into the Indian Ocean, parted miraculously at the doors of a local...

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