The Why Files The Why Files --


A grim list
Tsunamis have been destroying coastlines throughout recorded history. Here are some of their stories.

village of Wuhring photograph
Flores, Indonesia, 1992: The small, densely populated village of Wuhring was destroyed when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake centered about 35 kilometers away caused a tsunami.The waves killed 87 people here, and 1,690 in all of Flores. USC Civil Engineering Department.

Nov. 1, 1755: Lisbon, Portugal
A series of massive earthquakes levels Lisbon during the celebration of All Saints' Day. Collapsing stone buildings kill thousands. As fires ignited by overturned candles ravage the city, residents seek relief from the heat near the waterfront. About an hour after the quake, a tsunami estimated at 50 feet tall sweeps in from the sea. The combined cataclysm kills about 60,000 people; only 15 percent of Lisbon's houses remain standing.

August 27, 1883: Indonesia
Krakatau, a volcano in the Sunda Straits, explodes with a gigantic roar audible 3,000 miles away. The explosions blow 20 cubic kilometers of rock into the sky. Undersea cracks allow massive amounts of seawater into a white-hot magma chamber. When the water turns to steam, the explosion causes tsunamis that cause most of the 37,000 deaths on nearby Sumatra and Java. Ironically, history's most deadly tsunami is caused by a volcano, not an earthquake.

1896: Japan
The Sanriku tsunami starts, as many do, when the sea withdraws with a great sucking and hissing sound. Striking a totally unprepared town during a festival, the wave kills 27,000 and destroys more than 10,000 houses. Fishermen at sea don't notice the deadly wave and return to an ocean strewn with the corpses of loved ones and the wreckage of their homes.

Scotch Cap lighthouse, before and after
The Scotch cap lighthouse was blasted off the face of the earth by a giant tsunami in 1946. The arrow indicates wreckage from lighthouse. U.S. Coast Guard.

April 1, 1946: Alaska and Hawaii
On Unimak, an island in the Aleutian chain, a large earthquake shakes the remote, steel-reinforced concrete Scotch Cap lighthouse, which stands about 100 feet above the North Pacific. Minutes later, a huge wave obliterates the lighthouse, leaving practically no trace of the five Coast Guardsmen inside. Five hours later, the tsunami rolls across the ocean and slams into Hilo, Hawaii, obliterating the waterfront and killing 159.

May 21-22, 1960: Chile and Hawaii
An astonishingly strong series of earthquakes in Chile -- culminating in one of the three largest quakes in the 20th century (magnitude 8.9) sinks 300 miles of coastline into the sea, activates one volcano, devastates five provinces, and causes tsunamis that kill an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people. Fourteen hours later, the tsunami arrives in Hilo. Ignoring warnings, many residents stay in homes near the bay, increasing the death toll by 61.

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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