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El Gran Terremoto de Valdivia, 1960 (Updated)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 06, 2009

The Great Chilean Earthquake of May 22, 1960 (magnitude 9.5), with severe fore- and aftershocks, was the largest earthquake measured during the 20th century. Callous as it is to say, this quake caused relatively few deaths – probably fewer than 3,000, including those killed during the quake itself, during the mudslides and volcanic eruptions which followed in Chile, and as a result of the tsunami that claimed victims from northern California to Hawaii to the Philippines to Japan. Still, it is remembered as one of the century’s great disasters, in part because new technology allowed the temblor to be recorded and measured precisely, because television carried almost-live images to the rest of the world, and because jet aircraft allowed the world to respond immediately.

When the first heavy foreshock hit at about 6 o’clock on the morning of Saturday, May 21, all of the LDS missionaries in Chile were gathered at Santiago for a nationwide missionary conference. When President Henry D. Moyle managed to place a telephone call from Salt Lake City to Mission President James Vernon Sharp, the president could report that his elders were all safe; he could not give a report on the safety of Church members, however, because his own phone calls to Concepcion and Valdivia had not yet gone through, nor could the elders return to their fields immediately because roads and train tracks were destroyed.

On the morning of the primary quake, the elders contacted Chilean officials and placed themselves at the government’s disposal for relief efforts. Their first assignment was to man shortwave radio stations to contact people in the worst affected areas. While they were on duty, a station in Concepcion managed to get a generator in operation, and the elders received a message from the first counselor in the branch presidency there. The branch there was functioning as it should – the presidency had called on the home teachers, who had visited every member. Many were homeless, but all were alive. The elders sent word to have all the homeless move into the branch chapel, which had survived with little damage.

On the morning of the 23rd (Monday, so government offices were finally open), the mission presidency called on the Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of the Interior, and Minister of Finance, as well as the United States Embassy and the Chilean Red Cross. Learning that antibiotics, blankets, and clothing were in short supply, the mission contacted the Church’s Welfare Department, which had a shipment airborne within hours.

The U.S. government flew complete mobile hospitals to the affected area – 26 Globemaster transport planes filled with equipment, along with the doctors and nurses to staff them. Responding to earlier offers, both the Chilean and American governments called on the missionaries, who were assigned to each hospital unit. The Chilean government gave the elders documents allowing them primary access to all available means of transportation and communication. The elders traveled by train, truck, plane, and helicopter along with the doctors, serving as official interpreters for medical personnel.

The Church continued to ship relief goods – food, blankets, clothing, medicines – into Chile as long as it was needed for emergency work. Commercial airlines flew tons of material at no charge to the Church. When relief supplies began to back up at the Panama transfer point because Chilean airports couldn’t handle the loads, steamer lines volunteered to carry the goods down by ship. The first shipments went to local members in the earthquake zone, but when their immediate needs were taken care of, tons of goods were turned over to the Chilean Red Cross.

Over the following months, the Church shipped in or purchased locally the necessary building materials to help Chilean members reconstruct their homes. Branch members worked cooperatively, supplying the manual labor each family needed, allowing them to save resources to hire skilled workmen for specialized services. Within a year, all members were again housed adequately.

The prompt offers of service, followed by the actual fulfilling of those offers, coupled with the personal contacts established with government and Red Cross officials, proved a boon to missionary work for a few years: Not only were the elders recognized and welcomed as they sought opportunities to teach the gospel, but for a time the Church was allowed to send increased numbers of elders into Chile, rather than being limited to replacing only those who had completed their missions.

UPDATE:

This morning I stumbled across material about a Chilean parliamentary delegation calling on David O. McKay on May 31, 1960, thanking him for the first 16-ton shipment sent out from Salt Lake within 24 hours of the quake, including 2,500 blankets, three tons of winter clothing, 5,000 penicillin shots, 2,000 typhoid shots, 540 rag rugs for sleeping mats, and other goods. The photo shows supplies being loaded onto a United Airlines plane, which would fly to Los Angeles, then transfer its load to a Panagra flight to Santiago. As of that date, ten of the elders in Chile were assigned to hands-on relief work in the stricken areas under assignment of the Chilean Red Cross; five were traveling with a U.S. medical unit in Valdivia with another interpreting for the field hospital at Puerto Monti Montt; the remaining four were working with Church members in Concepcion.



13 Comments »

  1. What an amazing story! I think Church relief activities are so important and often go unnoticed. I had the great opportunity to help after Hurricane Katrina. That left an impression I’ll never forget.

    Comment by Steve C. — April 6, 2009 @ 9:01 am

  2. [T]his quake caused relatively few deaths – probably fewer than 3,000, including those killed during the quake itself, during the mudslides and volcanic eruptions which followed in Chile, and as a result of the tsunami that claimed victims from northern California to Hawaii to the Philippines to Japan.

    Given the magnitude of the quake, that is remarkable. I’ve heard of this earthquake, but I was unaware of the church’s relief efforts. Thanks for the post and the photos.

    Comment by Justin — April 6, 2009 @ 9:29 am

  3. “On the morning of the primary quake, the elders contacted Chilean officials and placed themselves at the government’s disposal for relief efforts.”

    At the end of the day, it’s a statement like this one that make me proudest to be a member of the Church.

    Comment by Hunter — April 6, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  4. An area very dear to my heart. Thanks.

    Comment by queuno — April 6, 2009 @ 10:18 am

  5. Thank you, Ardis, for searching out and publishing stories such as this. I’ve become a devoted fan of Keep-a-pitch-in.

    Comment by Phoebe — April 6, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  6. Glad to hear from you, Phoebe, as well as from some of my favorite old-timers. It means a lot to have you check in with a comment once in a while so that I know you are there.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 6, 2009 @ 11:30 am

  7. Terrific story, Ardis. I guess that earthquakes in Chile just didn’t enter my consciousness while I was in kindergarten–and this is all news to me.

    Two minor issues:

    An anachronism–there were no “home teachers” in the church in 1960. That didn’t happen for another four years. They would have been “ward teachers.”

    Second, as your photograph suggests, much of the air transport fleet in 1960–whether civilian or military–would have been propellor-driven. Both the Boeing 707 and the DC-8 were in service by 1960, but the airlines were still using a lot of DC-7s (which is the United aircraft shown in the photograph), Lockheed Constellations and other propellor-driven aircraft.

    The “Globemaster” aircraft you mentioned is not the C-17 currently in use by the U.S. Air Force, but was a piston-engined plane developed in the late 1940s. It had a range of about 2,000 miles and a top speed of about 350 mph.

    But, even if most of the cargo that was transported to Chile (or the film of the disaster that was brought back for broadcasting on U.S. television) was taken on propellor planes, it was still a lot faster than going by boat.

    Comment by Mark B. — April 6, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  8. A quick follow-up: My wife was a missionary in Santiago, Chile (1993-95). She says that on her mission she didn’t hear a lot about the 1960 earthquake, but was familiar with it. She said earthquakes, in general, were definitely on the minds of Chileans. That they were very aware of the possibility of the next “big one.”

    She also said that there was a emergency plan in place for the missionaries, in case of a large earthquake. I wonder if the plan included placing themselves “at the government’s disposal for relief efforts”?

    Comment by Hunter — April 6, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  9. This brings to mind the earthquake that buried Yungay, Peru in 1970. I wasn’t there at the time (I was in Peru two years later) one of my teachers at the LTM was in the mission office at the time and went by bus and foot and Peruvian military helicopter to check on the members. A home town aquaintance was also there at the time. While the details are hazy now, it was interesting to hear and read of the response of the missionaries. Somewhere I still have a little mimeograph booklet of the rememberances of the elders and sisters involved. It was done at the request of the mission president (President Lister, I think). Now I’ll have to go dig it out and read it again.

    Comment by Yet Another John — April 6, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  10. Just ran across this, quoting a citation from the Red Cross:

    “‘Representatives (missionaries) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in neighboring South American countries went immediately to Chile to render such aid as was possible. From the Church’s Welfare Program warehouses in Salt Lake City, 352 cartons of supplies valued at $31,433.57 were shipped. These included antibiotics, blankets, clothing, rugs and 181 pairs of new shoes. In addition, 274 cartons of men’s, women’s and children’s shoes and clothing valued at $16,830.90 were sent to Chile.’

    “Mission President J. Vernon Sharp reports that Church aid to the Chileans has created much good will towards the Church. Missionaries, once limited in their activities, are now given permission to pursue their missionary labors. There is no quota now on missionaries permitted in Chile.”

    “Church recognized for aid to Chile during earthquake in 1960,” Church News, week ending 26 August 1961, 16.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 27, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

  11. Ardis, one very small correction. The town you refer to in you update is Puerto Montt not Puerto Monti. I served there. Southern Chile is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

    Comment by KLC — October 28, 2009 @ 11:20 am

  12. Thanks (fixed). My weak eyesight sometimes leads me to misread t/i, e/c, etc., in unfamiliar words.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 28, 2009 @ 11:23 am

  13. For some reason, this post has remained in the top 20 Keepa posts since its publication. There was a surge of hits following the earthquake in Haiti, then it dropped down to 3-5 hits per day, every day, for the past couple of weeks.

    Yesterday, 323 people landed here.

    I’m also receiving word of news outlets in many places displaying the photos from this post with a “Courtesy of keepapitchinin.org” line — this post must be one of the few internet sites with photos of the 1960 quake. The real credit belongs to the Church News and Instructor of 1960.

    May God bless those who need help and who are giving help, in Chile, and Haiti, and wherever there is need.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 28, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

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