December 28, 2012

The Day the Earth Moved: The 1908 Messina Earthquake Remembered

Earthquake damage at Messina, Sicily
By Niccolò Graffio
“Many people have told me that there were three separate and quite different movements of the earth in that awful minute.  The first was backward and forward, the second upward, the third seemed to be circular.  It was the second that destroyed Messina.  Its violence, the fugitives say, was appalling.  The noise, one man told me, was exactly like that made by a fast train in a tunnel.” – Robert Hichens: After the Earthquake: The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine; pg. 932;  MacMillian & Co. April, 1909   
Archaeologists tell us that in the roughly 2,000 centuries our species has walked the earth we have only enjoyed the "creature comforts" of what we call civilization for about 60 of those centuries.  This transition certainly did not occur overnight, and if one goes by the headlines, there are those who still have yet to become civilized.

Certainly civilization has heaped many benefits upon us as a species.  For starters, there are many more humans on the earth today than at any other time in history.  As civilization has progressed technologically, human life expectancy has increased along with it.

Yet this progress comes at a terrible price.  Civilization, by its very definition, requires numbers of humans to huddle together in large cities.  The earth is not a stable place.  Though we have broken the sound barrier and split the atom, though we have eradicated dreaded smallpox and made once-fatal diabetes a treatable condition, we are still largely at the mercy of the forces that help shape our planet.  When these forces assert themselves as they are wont to do periodically, the end result is often what we like to term disasters and catastrophes.

Not all disasters and catastrophes are the result of nature run wild.  Many are the result of human error.  The nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, USSR and the Union Carbide chemical spill in Bhopal, India stand as two glaring examples of boneheaded human actions and the horrifying results.

As bad as these are in terms of loss of human life, however, nature is still one up on us.  Tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and plagues can and have killed many more than any man-made disaster, wars notwithstanding.

Of all the natural disasters that afflict us, few come more frightening than earthquakes.  They can come with little or even no warning.  They can last mere seconds yet to victims it seems the ground is literally opening up to swallow them.  In their wake they can (and have) left tens of thousands dead and many more destitute.
Refugees awaiting transportation at Messina, Sicily
As it stands, our ancestors picked a great spot, geologically-speaking, to build a civilization, because Southern Italy is one of the “hot spots” for both volcanic and seismic activity on this planet!  Several active volcanoes (Aetna, Vesuvio and Stromboli) sit within our borders.  In addition, Southern Italy sits on top of the border between the European and African tectonic plates that are part of the earth’s crust.  Geologists claim these two plates are moving closer together, guaranteeing a number of earthquakes in that region’s future.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that our beloved Due Sicilie has seen its share of natural disasters.  In fact, one of the greatest earthquakes (in terms of loss of human life) in recorded history occurred there not too long ago.  Sadly, like so many other things, good and bad, that have happened to our people, its anniversary goes unrecognized.  This is unfathomable to me, and for good reasons.

It changed the course of the history of two countries – Italy and America!  Many who are now reading this had ancestors who fled to America from Italy as a result of it.  For those reasons, and to pay respects to the memory of the dead, it is worth remembering.   

Messina, Sicily is a picturesque port city filled with landmarks that reflect its centuries-long existence.  Founded by the ancient Greeks, it passed into the hands of the Romans after being fought over by Carthaginians, Greeks and Mamertines.  When the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD it was briefly ruled by Goths before being seized by the armies of the Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great in 535 AD.  

Subsequently it passed into the hands of the Arabs before being captured by the Norman forbears of the first sovereign of the Kingdom of Sicily, Roderigo II.  

Messina traded hands numerous times over the following centuries until it became a port city in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies where it remained until that nation was destroyed in 1860.  Today it is one of Sicily’s most popular tourist destinations with a permanent population of over 240,000.

It was here in this sleepy but picturesque city that the Fates would deal a cruel hand in 1908.  Sixteen years earlier, on November 16th, 1894, another earthquake had damaged the city, but the Sicilians quickly rebuilt and life went on without a thought.  The passage of time dulled the memory of that quake, and thus the stage was set for December 28th, 1908.
Earthquake victims recovery at Messina, Sicily
At about 5:20 AM on that morning the mightiest earthquake in Europe’s modern recorded history struck!  The bucking and bolting of the earth’s crust was over in about 40 seconds; in its wake the sounds of thousands of buildings, many of them ancient, crashing to the ground, followed by the shrieks and screams of the wounded and dying.

Many survived the initial quake but were inundated by the tsunami it kicked up mere moments later when a wall of water up to 39 feet in height came roaring ashore from the sea.

The epicenter of the quake was the city of Messina itself, but Reggio di Calabria was hit hard as well.  The quake was felt as far north as Naples.  Modern seismologists estimate the intensity of the quake at 7.1 on today’s Moment Magnitude Scale (MMS), which measures the release of an earthquake’s energy.  To put that in perspective, the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which devastated the southern part of the Hyogo Prefecture, Japan on January 17, 1995 (causing over 6,400 fatalities and an estimated $100 billion worth of damage) was “only” a 6.9 on the same scale.

Wireless communications were nonexistent in those days.  Further compounding the problem was the fact telegraph lines in many parts of Southern Italy were thrown down by the quake.  Rail lines and in many cases railway stations were destroyed.  News of the quake was carried by Italian torpedo boats to Nicotera in Calabria where the telegraph lines were still working.  Eventually newspaper headlines across the globe carried the grim news.

King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy hurriedly visited the area with his wife Queen Elena in tow.  The Italian army and navy were dispatched to assist in the search for survivors as well as to care for the sick and wounded.  Eventually they also assisted in removing refugees from the area to other parts of Italy.

Reaction from the international community was swift, as well. The nations of Russia, France, the UK as well as others dispatched ships to the area, and their assistance was laudable. The “shining star” of the entire operation, however, was unquestionably the United States of America.  

Lecture on the Messina earthquake 
by Dr. Salvatore J. LaGumina at 
the Italian American Museum
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
Then-President Theodore Roosevelt had commissioned a battle fleet of 16 destroyers (divided into two squadrons) along with various escorts to circumnavigate the globe in an unabashed display of U.S. naval supremacy.   The fleet had departed from American shores on December 16th, 1907.  The fleet had been dubbed “The Great White Fleet” by the press owing to the fact the hulls of these ships had been painted a stark white.  

When news of the quake reached Washington, Roosevelt ordered the fleet rerouted immediately to the afflicted areas.  It arrived in Messina on February 22nd, 1909.  It is well worth mentioning this was the same Theodore Roosevelt who 18 years earlier had said the infamous New Orleans lynching of 11 Sicilians was “rather a good thing.”  How ironic, then, that a man who never expressed any affection for Italians in general (and especially Sicilians) was now in the position of being their savior.  

Cynics (myself being one of them) would argue the copious amounts of aid Roosevelt dispatched to Southern Italy was in keeping within his aim of projecting U.S. naval power and prestige abroad, rather than any genuine display of altruism on his part.  If that is true then so be it.  A helping hand is a helping hand, regardless of the motives of the one extending it.  It is also worth remembering that old adage, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

In spite of all the aid from the international community, the fact of the matter was a huge number of people on both sides of the Straits of Messina were now homeless.  The Italian military relocated as many of them as they could to other parts of Italy, where undoubtedly their descendants still reside.  Still others, however, took the opportunity to join many of the paesani in the Southern Italian Diaspora.

The actual death toll from the quake and accompanying tsunami has never been accurately recorded.  Conservative estimates put it at around 72,000 with more liberal ones going as high as 110,000 (or more).

Dr. Salvatore J. LaGumina's book
"The Great Earthquake: America 
Comes to Messina’s Rescue"
One notable effect of the quake was the warming in relations between Italy and the United States.  After the infamous New Orleans lynching of 11 Sicilians (who had just been found “not guilty” in a criminal trial, by the way), things became quite chili between the two countries and would remain that way until the outpouring of aid re-opened the lines of communication and trust between them.

Humankind has had to put up with more than its share of disasters and catastrophes (man-made as well as natural) since the infamous Messina earthquake.  Two world wars, a global economic depression, Communism and Fascism have all left scars on the collective human psyche.  On December 26th, 2004, the day after Christmas, a monstrous earthquake of 9.2 on the Moment Magnitude Scale struck the Indian Ocean, kicking up a mega-tsunami that is believed to have killed almost 240,000 people! 

In light of all this it is tempting by some (especially the “lovers” of our people) to dismiss the Messina earthquake as just another page in the history books.  For them, that may be true.  For us, however, it would be a mistake to think likewise.  After all, that quake is responsible for many of us residing where we do today.  It is partly responsible for what we are as a people today.  It, like so many disasters before and since then, is also an eternal reminder of just how tenuous our hold is on this thing we call life.

Further reading:
• Salvatore J. LaGumina: The Great Earthquake: America Comes to Messina’s Rescue; Teneo Press, 2008