In parts of the world which, due to faults in the Earth’s crust, are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, people learn to live with the risk and accept it as part of their lives, much the same as people who live in the northern hemisphere accept the probability of snow in winter, or in Britain, the probability of rain!
The first recorded earthquake in Peru dates back to 1619 and Peruvians have been aware of the likelihood of earthquakes for centuries. However, few would have imagined the devastation caused by the earthquake on 31 May 1970 which affected 600 miles of the coast and left dozens of towns in ruins or obliterated completely.
At 3:23pm, 15 miles west of the thriving fishing town of Chimbote in the department of Ancash, north-central Peru, the seabed cracked in the Pacific Ocean. For many hundreds of miles north, south and east across the land, the shock was felt at an intensity of between seven and eight degrees on the Richter scale. Due to the great depth of its point of origin, the quake did not disturb the seabed, so no major tsunamis occurred. While it produced no killers from the ocean depths, the quake triggered some deadly events from the heights of Peru.
The quake shook loose a huge mass of material from Huascaran – the 22,205-foot mountain that is Peru’s highest peak – unleashing a combination avalanche-landslide. Millions of tons of snow, ice, rocks and mud shot down the mountain’s slopes at speeds sometimes exceeding 150 miles per hour. In Yungay, 20,000 people were buried alive. Elsewhere the half-mile-wide mass of debris flattened villages and farms like a giant bulldozer. When it finally ended, the Peruvian quake and accompanying landslide-avalanche had claimed nearly 80,000 lives and had destroyed the homes of nearly a million people. It was the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike North or South America.
Many lessons were learnt from Peru’s disaster particularly as it became apparent that the destruction would have been far less if buildings had been better sited or better constructed. But these lessons came at a great cost.