Messina Earthquake in 1908

On December 28, 1908 an earthquake occurred along the Straits of Messina between the island of Sicily and mainland Italy, measuring between M6.7 and M7.2 on the magnitude scale. The ground shook for 30 to 40 seconds, and the destruction was felt within a 300 km (kilometer radius. The Messina Earthquake caused severe ground shaking throughout the region and triggered a local 12 m (meter) tsunami, which struck within minutes after the earthquake. It took some 100,000 to 200,000 lives. By all accounts, 91% of structures in Messina were destroyed, rail lines in the area had been destroyed, often along with the railway stations, and some 70,000 residents were killed. The cities of Messina along Sicily’s coast and Reggio di Calabria on Italy’s mainland were completely destroyed, as many unreinforced masonry buildings collapsed. There were also several fires that destroyed houses and turned them to rubble.

Rescuers searched through the rubble for weeks, and whole families were still being pulled out alive days later, but thousands remained buried. Buildings in the area had not been constructed for earthquake resistance, having heavy roofs and vulnerable foundations. The Italian navy and army responded and began searching, treating the injured, and evacuating refugees. The disaster made headlines worldwide and international relief efforts were launched. With the help of the Red Cross and sailors of the Russian and British fleets, search and cleanup were expedited.

Normal faulting between the plates was found to be the reason of the earthquake.

Italy sits along the boundary zone of the African Continental plate and this plate is pushing against the seafloor underneath Europe at a rate of 2.5 cm (centimeter) per year. This causes vertical displacement, which in turn can cause earthquakes. Recently it has been proposed that the tsunami was not generated by the earthquake, but rather triggered by a large undersea landslide.

A total of 293 aftershocks were reported December 28, 1908 and March 31, 1909, but none caused significant damage. The larger aftershocks were concentrated near the cities of Messina and Reggio di Calabria, while a vast number of moderate shocks were around Mileto and Capo Vaticano, both in Calabria. A chain of aftershocks also occurred near Mount Etna on Sicily, but it is unclear whether these events were related to the 1908 earthquake or of volcanic origin. One hundred years following the 1908 earthquake, it remains the deadliest event in Europe.

After the earthquake, the government took precautions when reconstructing the damaged area. They built architecture that would be able to withstand earthquakes of variable magnitude, if one should strike again. The first quantitative seismic design recommendations were made. The government of Italy responded to the Messina earthquake by appointing a special committee composed of nine practicing engineers and five professors of engineering. They recommended that the first story be designed for a horizontal force equals to 1/12 the weight above and the second and third story to be designed for 1/8 of the building weight above. The height of buildings was limited to three stories. It is interesting to note that design seismic forces were at first defined in terms of a story shear coefficient, a ratio of story shear to weight above, rather than a seismic coefficient, a ratio of the horizontal force of a floor to the weight of the floor.

During the reconstruction, many of the Italian residents were relocated to various parts of Italy. Others were forced to immigrate to America to start a new life.