May 1960: Surviving a Tsunami - Lessons from Chile, Hawaii, and JapanActions that saved lives, and actions that cost lives, as recounted by eyewitnesses to the tsunami from the largest earthquake ever measured - the magnitude 9.5 earthquake in Chile on May 22, 1960. In interviews several decades later, people in Chile, Hawaii, and Japan recall the tsunami.
Actions that saved lives, and actions that cost lives, as recounted by eyewitnesses to the tsunami from the largest earthquake ever measured - the magnitude 9.5 earthquake in Chile on May 22, 1960. In interviews several decades later, people in Chile, Hawaii, and Japan recall the tsunami.
Their accounts contain lessons on tsunami survival:
- Many Will Survive the Earthquake
- Heed Natural Warnings
- Heed Official Warnings
- Expect Many Waves
- Head for High Ground and Stay There
- Abandon Belongings
- Don't Count on the Roads
- Go to an Upper Floor or Roof of a Building
- Climb a Tree
- Climb onto Something that Floats
- Expect the Waves to Leave Debris
- Expect Quakes to Lower Coastal Land
- Expect Company
The following is from the U.S. Geological Survey, Circular 1187, Version 1.1 and is compiled by Brian F. Atwater, Marco Cisternas V.1, Joanne Bourgeois2, Walter C. Dudley3, James W. Hendley II, and Peter H.Stauffer.
Prepared in cooperation with Universidad Austral de Chile, the University of Tokyo, the University of Washington, the Geological Survey of Japan, and the Pacific Tsunami Museum1Centro EULA-Chile, Universidad de Concepción, Casilla 160-C, Concepción, Chile.
2Dept. of Geological Sciences, Box 351310, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195.
3Pacific Tsunami Museum, P.O. Box 806, Hilo, HI 96721.
IntroductionThis report contains true stories that illustrate how to survive-and how not to survive-a tsunami. It is meant for people who live, work, or play along coasts that tsunamis may strike.
Such coasts surround most of the Pacific Ocean but also include other areas, such as the shores of the Caribbean, eastern Canada, and the Mediterranean.
Although many people call tsunamis "tidal waves" they are not related to tides but are rather a series of waves, or "wave trains" usually caused by earthquakes.
Tsunamis have also been caused by the eruption of some coastal and island volcanoes, submarine landslides, and oceanic impacts of large meteorites.
Tsunami waves can become more than 30 feet high as they come into shore and can rush miles inland across low-lying areas.
The stories in this book were selected from interviews with people who survived a Pacific Ocean tsunami in 1960. Many of these people, including the nurse at right, contended with the waves near their source, along the coast of Chile.
Others faced the tsunami many hours later in Hawaii and Japan. Most of the interviews were done decades later in the 1980's and 1990's.
The stories provide a mixed bag of lessons about tsunami survival. Some illustrate actions that reliably saved lives-heeding natural warnings, abandoning belongings, and going promptly to high ground and staying there until the tsunami is really over.
Others describe taking refuge in buildings or trees or floating on debris-tactics that had mixed results and can be recommended only as desperate acts.
The 1960 Tsunami and the Earthquake in Chile That Caused ItMost of the events described in this book were caused by a series of waves widely known as the "1960 Chilean tsunami."
The tsunami was a result of the largest earthquake ever measured (magnitude 9.5). This quake occurred along the coast of Chile on May 22, 1960.
In Chile, the earthquake and the tsunami that followed took more than 2,000 lives and caused property damage estimated at $550 million (1960 dollars). From Chile the tsunami radiated outward, killing 61 people in Hawaii and 122 in Japan.
The 1960 Chile earthquake ruptured a fault zone along which a slab of sea floor is descending, or "subducting," beneath the adjacent South American Continent.
Such "subduction zones" are formed where two of the tectonic plates that make up the Earth's outer shell meet.
Earthquakes occur when the fault ruptures, suddenly releasing built-up energy.
During the 1960 Chile earthquake, the western margin of the South American Plate lurched as much as 60 feet relative to the subducting Nazca Plate, in an area 600 miles long and more than 100 miles wide.
Similar Tsunamis, Similar Strategies for SurvivalSome areas around the margin of the Pacific Ocean are located near subduction zones similar to the one that produced the 1960 Chile earthquake and its tsunami. One of these areas is Cascadia-southern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and northern California.
Recently, it has been discovered that the Cascadia Subduction Zone, like the subduction zone off Chile, has a history of producing earthquakes that triggered tsunamis. The most recent of these earthquakes, in 1700, set off a tsunami that struck Japan with waves about as big as those of the 1960 Chilean tsunami in Japan.
However, modern Cascadia has had little experience with tsunamis and almost no experience with tsunamis generated close to home. Because of this, people in Cascadia need to look elsewhere for guidance about tsunami survival.
Perhaps the most basic guidance for people in Cascadia comes from the account on the following page. Many people in Cascadia may think that "The Big One" -an earthquake of magnitude 9+ will kill them before its tsunami rolls in. So, why bother to prepare for such a tsunami?
In the account, all the people in and near the town of Maullín, Chile, survived the biggest earthquake ever measured. The deaths in the area came later, during the tsunami that followed the quake.
In coastal areas, the largest subduction zone earthquake may kill fewer people than the tsunami that follows.José Argomedo survived the 1960 Chile earthquake, which he initially mistook for nuclear war. Mr. Argomedo was 22 years old and living on a farm outside Maullín, Chile, where he got news of the world from his radio.
Early in May 1960, the big news was the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union-a Soviet missile had downed an American spy plane.
On May 18, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev, suggested treating the United States like a cat that had stolen cream. "Wouldn't it be better," he said, "to take the American aggressors by the scruff of the neck also and give them a little shaking?"
A few days later, on the afternoon of May 22, while out riding his horse, Mr. Argomedo felt more than a little shaking. As the ground beneath him shook hard for several minutes, he was forced to get off his horse. Mr. Argomedo thought the Cold War had turned hot.
However, like everyone else in the area of Maullín, Quenuir, and La Pasada, he was actually living through a magnitude 9.5 earthquake, the largest ever measured.
Mr. Argomedo was on high ground during the hours that followed the earthquake. However, many other residents of the area were not, and 122 were killed by the ensuing tsunami.
An earthquake may serve as a warning that a tsunami is coming, and so may a rapid fall or rise in coastal waters.
On Sunday, May 22, 1960, Jovita Riquelme took her 5-year-old daughter to Mass in Queule, Chile. During Mass, the priest talked about earthquakes. A swarm of quakes as large as magnitude 8 had occurred 100 miles to the north the previous day.
Later that Sunday, the magnitude 9.5 mainshock of the 1960 Chile earthquake rocked the region. After the shaking ended, many people from Queule decided to head to nearby hills.
From their stories it is not known why they chose to do this, but their only known warning was the minutes of shaking or, perhaps, changes in the level of the Río Queule or the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Heeding natural warnings by going to high ground probably saved hundreds of lives in Queule. However, Mrs. Riquelme's family remained at their house on low ground near the Río Queule.
The tsunami that followed the earthquake caught the Riquelme family there. During the confusion caused by the waves, Mrs. Riquelme lost her daughter, and her husband was badly injured.
Her husband died of his injuries, and the body of her daughter was found 3 days after the tsunami.
Not far from Queule, Vitalia Llanquimán lived outside the village of Mehuín. Soon after the earthquake shaking stopped, a man on horseback told her that the sea had receded from shore. At first, Mrs. Llanquimán was not alarmed by this news, but her husband took it as a warning that the sea, when it came back, might surge inland. Carrying their two youngest children, the couple hurried up a nearby hill, where they safely remained during the tsunami.
Play it safe, even if warnings seem ambiguous or you think the danger has passed.There was plenty of time for evacuation in Hilo, Hawaii, as the Chilean tsunami raced across the Pacific Ocean on May 22, 1960.
At 6:47 p.m. Hawaiian time, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey issued an official warning that waves were expected to reach Hilo at about midnight. Around 8:30 p.m., coastal sirens in Hilo sounded and continued to sound intermittently for 20 minutes.
When the first wave, only a few feet high, arrived just after midnight, hundreds of people were still at home on low ground in Hilo. Others, thinking that the danger had passed, returned to Hilo before the highest wave of the tsunami struck at 1:04 a.m. on May 23. One of those who came back too soon was 16-year-old Carol Brown.
Carol was at her family's house on low ground in Hilo when the warning sirens sounded. Carol's parents took valuables to a relative's house in Papa'ikou, a few miles northwest of Hilo, while Carol and her brother Ernest checked on a niece who was babysitting outside of town.
Later, Carol and Ernest returned to Hilo after hearing on the radio that tsunami waves had already come into town and were only 7 feet high. On the way back, they met a police officer who told them that the danger had passed. Carol and Ernest went to a sister's house in a low part of town.Around 1:00 a.m., they began to hear a low rumbling noise that soon became louder and was accompanied by sounds of crashing and crunching.
Moments later, a wall of water hit the house, floating it off its foundation. When the house came to rest, Hilo was dark because the powerplant had been knocked out by the same wave.
Carol and her family survived the 1960 Chilean tsunami without serious injury. However, 61 other people in Hilo died and another 282 were badly hurt.
These losses occurred, in part, because the warning sirens in Hilo on the evening of May 22, 1960, were interpreted differently by different people.
Although nearly everyone heard the sirens, only about a third of them thought it was a signal to evacuate without further notice. Most thought it was only a preliminary warning to be followed later by an evacuation signal.
Others in Hilo were unsure of how seriously to take the warnings, because several previous alerts had been followed by tsunamis that did little damage.
The next wave may be bigger, and the tsunami may last for hours.Just after 10 p.m. on May 22, 1960, seismologist Jerry Eaton and four companions assembled at the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on the Island of Hawai'i.
Gathering cameras, notebooks, flashlights, and steel measuring tapes, they piled into a Ford station wagon for the 30-mile ride down to Hilo. There they hoped to measure the 1960 Chilean tsunami, which was expected to arrive at about midnight.
The men had good reason to measure this tsunami. Hawai'i had been struck in the past by deadly tsunamis, including ones from Chile in 1837 and 1877 and one from the Aleutian Islands in 1946 that in Hilo alone killed 98 people.
Measurements of past tsunamis are commonly used to help identify areas at risk from future tsunamis. Measurements had been made in Hawaii of Aleutian tsunamis, but little was known about the heights of tsunamis from Chile.
In Hilo, Mr. Eaton and his companions stopped to clear their plans with the police and then drove to the Wailuku River Bridge, on the shore of Hilo Bay. They knew that the 1946 Aleutian tsunami had destroyed the bridge there.
The men set up an observation post on the new bridge and began measuring the water level beneath it. Just in case, they also planned their own evacuation route, a short sprint to high ground.
Just after midnight, the water under the bridge rose to 4 feet (1.2 meters) above normal-the first wave of the tsunami had arrived. At 12:46 a.m., the second wave washed under the bridge at a level 9 feet (2.7 meters) above normal.
By 1:00 a.m., the water beneath the bridge had dropped to 7 feet (2.1 meters) below normal. Mr. Eaton recalls that they then heard an ominous noise, a faint rumble like a distant train, that came from the darkness far out in Hilo Bay.
Two minutes later, they began to see the source of the noise, a pale wall of tumbling water, caught in the dim lights of Hilo. The wave grew in height as it moved steadily toward the city, and the noise became deafening.
By 1:04 a.m., the men on the bridge realized that they should run the few hundred feet to high ground. Turning around, they watched the 20-foot-high, nearly vertical front of the wave hit the bridge, and water splashed high into the air.
After this wave had passed and they thought it was safe, Mr. Eaton and his companions returned to the bridge and continued to record the water level during several more waves of the tsunami (see diagram below).
Move uphill or at least inland, away from the coast.
Going to high ground and staying there helped save lives during the 1960 Chilean tsunami, not only in Chile but also in Onagawa, Japan.
Damaging waves in Onagawa, some of which carried battering rams of floating wood, reached heights of 14 feet. Such waves kept arriving for several hours.
Elsewhere in Japan, the tsunami killed 138 people, but in Onagawa no one died, probably because many people there went to high ground. Some arrived there by 4:45 a.m., as the first large wave entered town.
They had been alerted by fireman Kimura Kunio. Mr. Kimura, on early morning watch beside the town's harbor, had noticed unusual motion of the water.
Save your life, not your possessions.Like everyone else in Maullín, Chile, Ramón Atala survived the 1960 Chile earthquake. However, he lost his life while trying to save something from the tsunami that followed.
Mr. Atala was Maullín's most prosperous merchant. Outside of town, he owned a barn and a plantation of Monterey pine. In town, he owned a pier and at least one large building and also had private quarters in a waterfront warehouse.
According to Nabih Soza, a fellow merchant, Mr. Atala entered this warehouse between the first and second waves of the tsunami that struck Maullín.
Mr. Atala was probably trapped in the warehouse when the second wave of the tsunami washed the building away. His son, Eduardo, said that afterward his father was among the missing and that his body was never found.
Some residents of the town say that Mr. Atala was briefly restrained outside the warehouse by his wife, who grabbed his hair before he finally broke away. Many in the town, spinning a cautionary tale about a wealthy man, say he entered the warehouse to rescue money.
Even as Mr. Atala was being carried off by the second wave, his barn outside of Maullín was providing a refuge for some 20 people, saving their lives from the tsunami.
When fleeing a tsunami caused by a nearby earthquake, you may find roads broken or blocked.
Minutes after the 1960 Chile earthquake, René Maldonado rode his horse on the road from Maullín, Chile. During the ride, Mr. Maldonado's horse had to jump newly formed cracks in the road. The weakened road was soon severed by the waves of the tsunami that followed the earthquake, leaving channels too wide even for a horse to jump.
Not all people in the area fleeing the earthquake and the tsunami were as lucky as Mr. Maldonado. Some had their routes of escape severed by tsunami waves.
Shaking from the 1960 earthquake not only damaged roads but also caused landslides. In addition to blocking roads, landslides caused by the quake dammed the Río San Pedro in the foothills of the Andes about 40 miles east of the city of Valdivia, Chile. Later failure of this landslide dam unleashed a flood that covered parts of the city.
Only if trapped and unable to reach high ground, go to an upper story of a sturdy building or get on its roof.The family of José Navarro, farming on a low peninsula near Maullín, Chile, had only one quick route to high ground after the 1960 Chile earthquake. The route was eastward along an unpaved road, across a bridge over a tidal stream, to uplands called Chuyaquén.
Although a neighbor quickly took that route, the Navarro family stayed in their home, beside another tidal stream. Some minutes after the earthquake, the Navarro family saw the waters of the stream recede.
Never before had they seen so much of the streambed exposed. By then, the first wave of the tsunami that followed the quake was approaching but still out of view to the west.
Only when they saw a low wall of water less than a mile away did the Navarros head for high ground. The family needed to cover half a mile just to reach the bridge that their neighbor had used. They got far enough to see the first tsunami wave destroy it in front of them.
As the first wave receded, they looked for something to climb. Nothing near them stood more than a few feet high, except for their 9-year-old apple trees and several windbreaks of cypress.
Three quarters of a mile to the south, however, was a barn. This was among the properties of Ramón Atala, who was about to be carried away by the second wave in Maullín.
Although Mr. Navarro's wife and children headed for the barn, Mr. Navarro did not go with them. He thought he'd retrieve a few things from the family house. However, when he heard shouts from the direction of Maullín, he took them as a warning of a second wave and went directly to the barn.
The second wave reached the barn just as Mr. Navarro joined his family there. Along with 14 others, the Navarro family spent the night in the loft of Ramón Atala's barn, safe above the tsunami waters that ran beneath them.
As a last resort, climb up a strong tree if trapped on low ground.At least a dozen people near Maullín, Chile, survived the 1960 Chilean tsunami by climbing trees. However, others perished when the trees they climbed were toppled by the tsunami.
Ramón Ramírez, 15 years old at the time of the tsunami, survived by climbing into the branches of a cypress tree (photo at right) on a plain west of Maullín.
While Mr. Ramírez stayed safely in the cypress, the waters of the tsunami swirled about the tree. The water crested at 15 feet above sea level, reaching several feet above the tree’s base.
In nearby Quenuir, at the mouth of the Río Maullín, Estalino Hernández climbed an arrayán tree to escape the tsunami's waves. While he clung to the tree, the waters of the tsunami rose to his waist. Not far away, the onrushing water covered land 30 feet above sea level.
Although Mr. Hernández survived the tsunami, he lost his 13-year-old son to the waves. Quenuir had 104 other victims, most of whom took to boats just after the earthquake and were caught by the first wave of the tsunami.
Inland from Quenuir, a pregnant María Vera and eight others climbed a peta tree on a low plain north of the Río Maullín (photo below). Throughout the night, water surged beneath them, scouring sandy ground nearby.
If swept up by a tsunami, look for something to use as a raft.
Nelly Gallardo survived the tsunami that followed the 1960 Chile earthquake by clinging to a log. The earthquake struck while she was digging for clams on the shore more than 4 miles west of Maullín, Chile.
Soon after the shaking from the quake stopped, she walked about 100 yards inland to a house that was more than half a mile from the nearest high ground. The next thing Ms. Gallardo recalls is floating on a tree trunk. She clung to this trunk until the next morning.
For a time she heard a man's voice crying for help-his body was found later. At daybreak she was more than a mile from where the tsunami had swept her up. The tsunami included many waves, but Ms. Gallardo recalls only the one that set her adrift.
The roof of her family house served as a life raft for Armanda Cubate, her 4-year old nephew Nelson, and five others. The house, on low ground west of Maullín, withstood the 1960 earthquake. The house also withstood the first two waves of the tsunami that followed the quake, but the third wave swept it away.
This wave also toppled a nearby tree that Ms. Cubate's father had climbed to escape the tsunami. Both he and Ms. Cubate's mother drowned in the tsunami. Survivors on the roof later pulled the mother's body from the water.
A tsunami will leave behind sand, the remains of houses, and bodies.
El maremoto fue tan grande que hasta los muertos sacó de sus tumbas. ("The tsunami was so big that it even took the dead from their graves"). This saying comes from Quenuir, Chile, a village at the mouth of the Río Maullín.
The tsunami that followed the 1960 Chile earthquake killed 105 people from Quenuir-a quarter of the village's population. In addition to this loss of the living, Quenuir lost many of its dead.
The village cemetery was located on sandy ground that the tsunami washed away. Debris from the cemetery came to rest more than 3 miles upriver. There, just outside La Pasada, Tulio Ruiz found crosses and a full casket.
The 1960 tsunami also deposited sand along the Río Maullín, some of it on land owned by Juan Vera. He and his wife, María Silva, lived on low ground 2 miles east of Maullín.
The 1960 earthquake found Mrs. Silva at home and her husband on a nearby hillside. Their house collapsed, but Mrs. Silva escaped and soon joined her husband on high ground.
Together they watched the tsunami overrun their fields and carry away the remains of their house. The next day, Mr. Vera found a layer of sand several inches thick on much of the land the tsunami had overrun.
Many houses were carried inland by the 1960 tsunami. After fleeing to high ground near Queule, more than 100 miles north of Maullín0), Filberto Henríquez saw houses floating away from the town. He recalls that some of the houses, with their stoves still smoking, looked like ships.
Remains of houses from Queule ended up as much as a mile inland (according to a report by Wolfgang Weischet;, but Margarita Liempí's house was deposited intact; even her drinking glasses were unbroken.
At Mehuín, near Queule, Jacinto Reyes buried some of the tsunami victims. Among them were the parents of two girls who were found in blackberry bushes, scratched but alive.
Not all the tsunami victims were found quickly. About 10 days after the tsunami, Mr. Reyes happened upon bodies stuck in sand and being eaten by birds.
A large earthquake can leave nearby coastal areas lowered, allowing tidal water to flood them.The 1960 Chile earthquake not only triggered a tsunami that killed Ramón Atala, it also changed his Monterey pine plantation outside of Maullín, Chile, into a salt marsh. The pines, grown for timber, covered low ground around Mr. Atala's barn.
During the earthquake, this land was lowered. Because tides were then able to inundate the plantation, the ground became too wet and salty for the trees to survive (right).
What happened to Mr. Atala's plantation happened at many places along Chile's coast. When a 600-mile-long stretch of the South American tectonic plate was thinned during the 1960 earthquake, nearby land was lowered as much as 8 feet. The sea was then able to cover coastal pastures, farms, and forests.
Coastal areas were also lowered and submerged in Cascadia after the 1700 Cascadia earthquake. These areas include a Native American fishing camp. After being inundated by the 1700 tsunami, this fishing camp became a tidal flat or a tidal marsh.
Shelter your neighbors.
In the first weeks after the 1960 Chile earthquake and tsunami, Yolanda Montealegre provided shelter for 40 families in Casa Grande, her large home on the outskirts of Maullín, Chile.
Ms. Montealegre left her house minutes after the earthquake and reached high ground in time to watch the arrival of the second wave of the tsunami that followed the quake.
The next morning, she found Casa Grande in good shape, its ground floor dry. The families she soon took in were among the estimated 1 million Chileans left temporarily homeless by the earthquake and tsunami.