This 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.

Palmira Estrada, a

nurse who survived the 1960 tsunami in Maullín, Chile, talks with interviewer Marco Cisternas in 1989. Behind them stands a hospital that was evacuated during the tsunami. The waters of the tsunami washed against the building.

The 1960 Tsunami and the Earthquake in Chile That Caused It

Most 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.

The 1960 Chilean tsunami radiated outward from a subduction zone along the coast of Chile. Its waves reached Hawaii in 15 hours and Japan in 22 hours.


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