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History's Deadliest Tsunami

The tsunamis that claimed thousands of lives across the Indian Ocean are the deadliest great waves in more than a century and probably in modern history.

More than 36,000 people were killed by tsunamis following the explosion of the volcano Krakatau in the Sunda Strait near Java on Aug. 27, 1883. Many estimates of the number killed in that disaster were even higher.

The toll from Sunday's tsunamis has now topped 100,000 deaths in 12 nations.

Following the 1883 eruption, waves estimated as high as 90 feet slammed ashore on nearby islands, wiping out coastal communities in what is now Indonesia. They had been the deadliest tsunamis of modern times until now.

The earliest description of a tsunami-type wave comes from 479 B.C. in the northern part of the Aegean Sea. Similar waves have been reported worldwide, though they are more common in the Pacific, with its earthquake-prone perimeter.

Many historians believe the explosive eruption of Santorini in the Aegean Sea in 1500 B.C. caused a tsunami that brought widespread devastation to the eastern Mediterranean and Crete.

Thousands of coastal residents in Spain, Portugal and North Africa were killed by waves spawned by an earthquake at Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755.

Over the centuries, Japan has been the land most plagued by tsunamis, with at least 66,000 deaths recorded there since A.D. 684.

Among the deadliest tsunamis was one that struck Honshu, Japan, in 1896, killing an estimated 27,000.

Many coastal residents were in the streets celebrating a holiday when the wave struck. The next day, fishermen returning home found a scene of devastation, strewn with bodies and ruined homes for miles.

Indonesia has seen more than 50,000 deaths in more than 30 destructive tsunamis over the centuries — not including the most recent disaster.

On April 1, 1946, a Pacific-wide tsunami was generated by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake near Unimak Island in Alaska's Aleutian Island chain.

A huge wave destroyed the U.S. Coast Guard's Scotch Cap lighthouse on Unimak, killing all five of its occupants. The lighthouse was a steel-reinforced concrete structure standing about 90 feet above sea level.

That tsunami reached the Hawaiian Islands about five hours later, obliterating Hilo's waterfront and killing 159 people.

Altogether, 165 people died, including children attending school at Hawaii's Laupahoehoe Point, where waves reaching up to 25 feet struck.

As a result of this wave, two years later the United States established a Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.

Other notable tsunamis have included:

  • Aug. 16, 1976: A tsunami generated by a quake on Mindanao in the Philippines killed between 5,000 and 8,000 people in the Moro Gulf region.
  • March 28, 1964: A magnitude 8.4 quake in Alaska generated tsunamis that caused damage in southeastern Alaska, in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and in the states of Washington, California and Hawaii. More than 120 died. Hardest hit was Crescent City, California, where waves reaching as much as 20 feet destroyed half of the waterfront business district. Eleven people lost their lives there. There was extensive damage in San Francisco Bay and at the marinas in Marin County and at the Noyo, Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors.
  • May 22, 1960: The largest earthquake — magnitude 8.6 — of the 20th century occurred off the coast of south central Chile. It generated a Pacific-wide tsunami, which was destructive locally in Chile and throughout the Pacific Ocean. The tsunami killed an estimated 2,300 people in Chile. Waves damaged the waterfront in Hilo, Hawaii, and killed 61 people.
  • Nov. 4, 1952: A strong earthquake off the coast of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula generated a great, destructive Pacific-wide tsunami. Its waves struck the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands and other areas of Russia's Far East, causing considerable damage and loss of life. There was also damage in Hawaii, Peru and Chile.
  • Jan. 31, 1906: A strong tsunami struck the coast of Ecuador and Colombia, submerging half of Tumaco, Colombia, and washing away half of a nearby island. The death toll has been estimated at between 500 and 1,500.
  • Aug. 13, 1868: A massive wave struck Chile, carrying ships as far as three miles inland at Arica. Deaths totaled 25,000 or more.
  • April 2, 1868: A locally generated tsunami swept over the tops of palm trees and claimed 81 lives in Hawaii.
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