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11 Of The Deadliest Natural Disasters in Latin America

Violent natural disasters have claimed lives around the world since the dawn of time. Latin America is far from an exception, as natural disasters have caused profound human loss, as well as environmental destruction and financial loss. Events that cause the highest death tolls are geophysical phenomena such as earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, volcanic eruptions, mudslides, floods, storms, extreme temperatures, fires and droughts. From the oldest to the most recent events on record, here are the deadliest disasters to strike Latin America:

1. 1906 Valparaiso earthquake in Chile

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At 8.6 on the Richter scale, the 1906 earthquake that hit Chile’s port of Valparaiso claimed 20,000 lives. This photograph depicts the immense damage at a church called Iglesia La Merced.

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This old photograph called Valparaiso despues del Terremoto (Valparaiso after the earthquake) shows the decimation of a busy market in wake of the disaster. 

2. Chile’s most deadly quake hits in 1939

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Sadly, Chile’s most deadly earthquake was yet to come. While it was a slightly smaller quake at 8.3 magnitude on the Richter scale, the 1939 earthquake in Chile’s capital Santiago left 28,000 people dead and many more maimed.

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This photograph depicts an article published in a Santiago newspaper just 2 days after the quake. The death toll was still being counted.

3. 1949 Ambato earthquake in Ecuador

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The earthquake that shook Ecuador on August 5th, 1949, was the largest to strike the Western Hemisphere in over 5 years. Although it’s commonly referred to as the Ambato earthquake, it actually hit a village called Pelileo in the Tungurahua Province southeast of its capital Ambato, claiming 5,050 lives. This photo shows the ruins of a church called Santa Rosa after the quake as children stand in the rubble.

Disaster Strikes Ecuador. Life magazine August 22, 1949

At 7.5 magnitude on the Richter scale, this disaster killed more than 5,000 people and left many more homeless. Life Magazine reported in its August 22nd, 1949 issue: “The subterranean shock flattened villages and towns in a 1,500-mile area along the eastern Andes.”

4. Hurricane Flora Hammers the Caribbean Islands in 1963

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On October 4th, 1963, Hurricane Flora became the 7th deadliest-ever hurricane to hit the Atlantic, resulting in more than 6,000 fatalities in the Caribbean. Haiti and Cuba were hit the hardest. 

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As a category 4 storm, Flora caused structural damage on a catastrophic scale.

5. The Great Peruvian Earthquake of 1970

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The most catastrophic disaster in Peru’s history happened when the Ancash earthquake struck on May 31st, 1970, killing 66,000 people. At 7.8 magnitude on the Richter scale, the quake levelled northern Peru and left over 800,000 citizens homeless. This photo was snapped as Peru’s First Lady and U.S. First Lady Pat Nixon inspected the earthquake’s damage.

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The earthquake triggered landslides and avalanches that caused the death toll to skyrocket after the quake itself was over. One landslide traveled 16.5 kilometers, buried the towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca, and claimed 22,000 casualties on its own.

6. Guatemala’s Earthquake of 1976

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On February 4th, 1976, an earthquake rocked Guatemala, causing widespread damage, including in its capital Guatemala City. This picture was a photographer’s depiction of Guatemala’s Hotel Terminal after the wreckage.

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With a magnitude of 7.5, Guatemala’s earthquake left around 27,000 people dead, caused massive structural damage and rendered millions of people homeless. This photograph shows a bridge that collapsed from the quake.

7. 1985 Mexico City Earthquake

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In the wee early hours of September 19th, 1985, Mexico City was shaken up by an 8.1 magnitude earthquake, killing 9,500 citizens in and around the city. It made the cover of Time Magazine on September 30th, 1985.

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This photograph shows the devastating collapse of Mexico City’s General Hospital.

8. Nevado del Ruiz Volcano

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On November 13, 1985, Columbia’s Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted and buried the neighboring town of Armero, resulting in about 25,000 deaths. The eruption triggered a deadly landslide from the Andes Mountains, where this photo was taken.

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The lava rushing from the volcano wreaked havoc on structures and homes, as you can see in this scene from the disaster.

9. Hurricane Mitch

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In October of 1998, Hurricane Mitch tore through several countries of Central America, including Honduras and Nicaragua. This photo reveals the devastation seen in the town of Morolica in Honduras.

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The category 5 storm reached peak winds of 290 kph, destroying homes in its wake. It also  Around 9,000 people lost their lives in Hurricane Mitch, making it the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record.

10. Venezuela Mudslides of 1999

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On December 15, 1999, flash floods from torrential rains sparked mudslides in the coastal state of Vargas, causing around 30,000 deaths–about 10 percent of the population in Vargas. Debris swept through the cities, causing damage for days after the mudslides began.

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The avalanches of mud, rock and debris that swept down from hillsides swept up thousands of people and even buried entire neighborhoods. Many were stranded on rooftops as the mud veered around their apartment buildings, and unfortunately, there was no organized rescue effort.

11. Hurricane Maria

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Not long ago on September 20th, 2017, Hurricane Maria brutally charged through Puerto Rico and left behind a massive death toll that climbed to 3,000. After Hurricane Irma hit just weeks earlier, Hurricane Maria made landfall as a category 4 storm with high winds and storm surge.

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Maria struck down cell towers and power lines, some of which were never repaired, causing millions of citizens to live without power. The death toll rose due to an extended lack of power in hospitals and other places where people depended on electricity. 

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