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The Day the Earth Moved

May 22, 1960, is a date few in southern Chile will ever forget: that is the day the world’s largest earthquake in modern history rocked the region.

People had forewarnings that something was afoot, since four foreshocks larger than magnitude 7.0 on the Richter scale shook the area. The day before, May 21, a 7.9 severely damaged Concepción to the north. On the afternoon of the fateful day, the Earth shuddered in a massive 9.5 tremor, 160 kilometers (100 miles) offshore from Valdivia. First the city crumbled. Then the sea was sucked far from shore, before returning as a tsunami towering over 24 meters (80 feet). It swooshed up Río Valdivia and slammed to land, wiping out the city of Valdivia and its industries. The massive wave radiated to the northwest as well, striking Hawaii and Japan. All of Southern Chile was affected by the earthquake. Much of Osorno was destroyed, as was over 70% of Puerto Montt. Towns as far south as Chiloé and Puerto Aysén were damaged.

Two days later, the tremor triggered an eruption of the Cordón de Caulle volcanic chain in Parque Nacional Puyehue. Highways and railroads were severed. Waterlines and electricity were cut. For more than two months, the rest of Chile had no idea of the extent of destruction. Through the month of August, the region continued to experience aftershocks of magnitudes up to 7.0.


The final toll of the disaster was staggering. In Chile 1,655 were killed, 3,000 injured and over two million made homeless. Damages amounted to more than a half-billion dollars. The tsunami also caused terribly high death tolls and losses in other parts of the world: in Hawaii, 61 persons and $75 million; in Japan, 138 deaths and $50 million; the Philippines, 32 dead and missing; the U.S. west coast, half-million dollars in damages.


For Valdivia, Osorno, Puerto Montt and other towns in southern Chile, this was a benchmark day in their history. Museums in these three cities have photographs of how that catastrophe affected them.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to The Lake District: History of the Lakes District,

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

18 Jun 2009

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