Any time a seismograph gives a Richter scale reading of 8.3, lots of people somewhere suffer a terrible ordeal that many cannot survive. Late one night in January 1939 the ‘somewhere’ was central Chile, and the event with that awesome magnitude was the destructive 23-minute Chillan earthquake. The epicenter was near the city that gave this massive quake its name, located in the country’s richest agricultural region, Nuble Province.
The long, narrow country of Chile lies above a fault line and is prone to seismic activity. The normal pattern sees an imminent earthquake heralded by foreshocks, giving ample notice of what lies in store. But 1939 was different. With no advance warning and unfortunate timing that meant most citizens were abed, Chillan’s inhabitants stood little chance. Few buildings were capable of withstanding such a powerful shock and 90 per cent duly collapsed. At least a quarter of the city’s 40,000 population died in bed as their houses fell on top of them. Many public buildings were also destroyed, including the old cathedral that was subsequently replaced with a modernistic quakeproof structure. The nearby city of Concepcion in the province of the same name was equally hard hit, with many buildings reduced to rubble and thousands killed. In all, an area of 45,000 sq. km (17,375 sq. mi) was seriously affected by the quake.
Chilean President Pedro Aguirre Cerda declared martial law and sent in the army to prevent looting and oversee initial rescue attempts. There were not many further casualties in the aftermath of disaster, thanks to a mild winter and effective relief efforts directed by the Red Cross. Both Chilean and Concepcion were subsequently reconstructed to stringent safety codes designed to protect residents from earthquakes that are virtually guaranteed to strike again in the future.
When was the Chillan Earthquake: January 24 1939
Where was the Chillan Earthquake: Bio Bio Region, Chile
What was the Chillan Earthquake death toll: it is estimated that around 30,000 people died as a direct result of the quake.
You should know: This wasn’t the first time Chillan had suffered catastrophic damage. In 1835 the town was rebuilt to the north of its original location after being razed to the ground by a violent quake. Concepcion was badly damaged at the same time but had already been moved to a new site after a great earthquake in 1751. Both were rebuilt on their existing sites after being flattened by the 1939 event.