Disasters History

The Forgotten Earthquake of 1966

Earthquakes are a constant reminder to all of us, of the volatility of our planet. Millions of people, especially those who live near fault lines, feel the effects of seismic activity, often on a regular basis. With that said, thousands of tremors are recorded every year, often with little effect to our lives, but once in a while a very big earthquake strikes causing complete and utter destruction. Infrastructure, roads and buildings can be rebuilt, but not the lives of those lost in the carnage.

One of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded, occurred only recently in 2011, off the northeastern coast of Japan (Tōhoku)The effects of the massive 9.0 magnitude, underwater inter-plate earthquake, unleashed a savage tsunami that terrorized the coast of Japan. In the age of social media, the 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami was huge news across the world, especially because of the damage it caused around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Damage to the nuclear power-plant was so severe that it resulted in three nuclear meltdowns and the release of radioactive material, not seen on such a massive scale since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. In short, the human cost saw nearly 16,000 people deaths, some 6,000 injuries and over 2,500 people reported missing.

Disasters like this cause people to never forget and to live in fear that one day something like that might happen again during their lifetime. Though, the passage of time is a funny thing because people sometimes do forget about the disasters that have shaped our past. It is here that I would like to focus briefly on one of the worst earthquakes recorded that seems to have disappeared from our consciousness. Hopefully with its fiftieth anniversary coming up later this year, this blog might reignite interest in it again.

On Friday 19th August 1966, in eastern Anatolia, Turkey, as the people of the provinces of Erzurum, Mus, Bingol and Bitlis, near the former borders of the old Soviet Union, Iran and Iraq were preparing for just another day, the ground beneath them suddenly distorted and heaved in a dire series of earthquakes. The area near Varto, in the Mus province, was the hardest hit completely devastating the township. The damage in the four provinces as a whole, was also substantial, with an estimated of one hundred and forty villages almost completely demolished.

Turkey, or Anatolia as a region sits on a major fault line. In fact, the North Anatolian and neighbouring fault lines cover most of what is modern day Turkey. In a nutshell it is an extremely prone earthquake zone and a list of notable earthquakes stretch far back as Roman times to 17 CE. Of interest, to this author, is the great earthquake of 557 in Constantinople. The Imperial Byzantine city was almost completely razed to the ground, which contributed to the collapse of the dome of the famous Hagia Sophia the following year.

Our story on the Varto earthquake is no less dramatic than the Hagia Sophia’s roof collapsing. The town of Varto had two significant tremors earlier in 1966 (March and July) that one could assume would put people on edge that a much bigger earthquake was brewing, or at least well overdue in the region. Whether anyone can safely predict the next big earthquake is hard to say, but no one could have truly predicted the carnage the August 19th earthquake would bring. As a result, eastern Anatolia, especially the town of Varto was almost completely razed to the ground by an earthquake measuring the magnitude of almost 7.0. The death total was significant with some 2,000 of its population dead, but small when we compare it for instance with the death toll of Japan’s 2011 combined earthquake and tsunami.

The loss of lives in Varto was nonetheless still traumatic. As news of the disaster broke, the Turkish army was the first to response. The journey along some of the poorest and remote roads was difficult. When the army eventually make it through to Varto and some of the hardest hit areas, they were helped by the tireless efforts of local police and volunteers, digging and frantically searching for survivors.

Much of the early salvage and rescue effort was carried out by the Turkish 3rd Army. Hope of finding people alive under the rumble of homes often turned to disappointment, but the occasional miracle occurred. When a story of a three year old boy surviving the earthquake hidden in a buried truck reached countries in Europe, like Britain, the response for immediate. Many nations sent teams of rescue workers to help the Turkish people. Money and relief supplies was also immediate dispatched from Europe and as distant as the United States.

The town of Varto itself, became the centre for a general distribution point for food, medicines and relief supplies. The logistics of temporarily housing and feeding thousands of starving people was only one of the challenges emergency workers had to deal with, the other was combating the real threat of a cholera outbreak.

History has shown us that sometimes with many international disaster relief operations, things do not always go as planned. Arguments, schemes and hidden agendas of corrupt and reckless individuals always seems to cloud the good work of others. In Varto, this was no different, as the Turkish army eventually had to step in and take over handling and distributing the relief supplies from aid groups.

The accurate figures of the earthquake disaster were impossible to work out. Arguably hundreds of people remained unaccounted for, due to the sheer scale of searching for the dead in the Varto region, crushed beneath fallen buildings. The best estimates that we have are that around 2,500 died and another 1,500 were injured. Some reports suggest that 19,000 house were also destroyed and some 100, 000 people displaced or made homeless.

One cannot truly appreciate tragic events like Varto without bringing attention to it. I hope we have done that, so that the reader might make their own investigation into it and other forgotten disasters. But disasters, in general, are always going to be overshadowed by the next big thing. (But that’s not always the case.) As for Varto, it might well disappear in the annals of history, but not on this website!

I originally wrote this article for Joseph Kaminsky’s website. You can view it here.

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