VALDIVIA – Exactly 59 years ago, the city of Valdivia in southern Chile was hit by the heaviest earthquake ever recorded. The earthquake with a magnitude of 9.6 on Richter´s scale destroyed the entire city, killed thousands of people and caused for tsunamis to destroy coastlines on the other side of the ocean.
Today at 3:11 PM, the bells of the cathedral of Valdivia and the sirens of the fire brigades in the city will sound to commemorate the disastrous earthquake that destroyed the city 59 years ago. Exactly at that time the earth started shaking for at least ten minutes, causing for buildings to collapse, roads to tear open and seawater to rise. The 9.6 earthquake of Valdivia became the heaviest earthquake ever recorded. What happened that day, the days before and the days after?
The Valdivia Earthquake: The Days Before
The earth was warning in the days before the 22nd of May that something massive was about to happen. In Concepción, the capital of the Bíobío region on 350 kilometers north of Valdivia, an 8.1 earthquake destroyed parts of the city one day before.
Two other foreshocks with magnitudes of 7.1 and 7.8 on Richter´s scale, occurred on the very same day – the latest 15 minutes before the 9.6 earthquake took place. It caused for people to leave buildings and houses, which is seen as one of the reasons why the death toll of the 9.6 earthquake was relatively low.
The Valdivia Earthquake
At 3.11 PM local time, the Great Earthquake took off. “I saw some chimneys falling down through the roofs of the houses”, recalls a witness, adding that he lost his balance due to the force of the earthquake.
The earthquake generated a series of tsunamis that hit the coastline with waves as high as 25 meters. Cities such as Puerto Montt and Lebu were heavily damaged, but also on the other side of the ocean, where tsunamis killed 185 people in Honshu, Japan, 32 people in the Philippines and 61 people in Hawaii, hours after the earthquake in Chile took place.
In Valdivia, the heaviest affected city, telecommunication systems were destroyed, and flooding’s occurred after ground water flowed up. The estimated death toll was 1,655.
The Valdivia Earthquake: The Days After
Two days after the earthquake, the Cordón Caulle volcano erupted as a consequence of the earthquake two days before. The country itself was expanded with an estimated 1,500 football fields due to the earthquake and the geographical location of Valdivia changed, some 30 meters west. Two million Chileans were left homeless.
Today, 59 years later, Valdivia is a flourishing city. A popular tourist destination surrounded by the most amazing nature. But when the bells ring this afternoon, those who lived the horrors of the Great Earthquake, will think back to the day the earth was torn open.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.