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Kefalonia - The 1953 Earthquake

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The 1953 Earthquake

Greece is the most earthquake-prone country in Europe and Kefalonia is particularly liable to experience earthquakes, lying just to the east of a major tectonic fault line where the European and Aegean plates meet at a slip boundary.

In 1953 one of the world’s most powerful earthquakes destroyed the islands of Kefalonia and Zakynthos and affected the islands of Lefkas and Ithaka.

It was on 9th August when the tremors commenced their rage on the islands. A staggering 113 tremors and aftershocks took their toll on Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Lefkada and Ithaca. There was a series of four major earthquakes, each stronger than the other, culminating on 12th August in a tremor that measured 7.2 on the Richter scale and lasted some 50 seconds, it left a trail of havoc and tragedy. The epicentre was almost directly beneath the southern tip of the island and the plate displacement raised the southern end of the island by some 60 cm.

Some 600 of the 125,000 or so islanders were killed. The toll could have been far higher but many had noticed strange occurrences, such as the water levels in the wells rising and falling, and were camped out in olive groves.

On Kefalonia devastation was all around and the destruction caused was appalling. The capitol Argostoli was flattened and most of its outlying villages destroyed. The landscape showed large open crevices and deep cracks opened on roads and tracks. Very few places on Kefalonia escaped damage, sparse areas around Fiskardo in the north of the island managed to escape the worst.

The strongest earthquake of the 12th was around lunchtime and many people were cooking at the time, this led to fires breaking out as people used gas bottles to cook with.

The Kefalonians were very brave race as they had just came through WW2 and the Civil War, they had suffered enormously and the earthquake now made them ready to tackle yet another hardship. International help aided the islanders, with United States, Britain, France, Israel, Sweden and Norway all taking part. The first help to arrive came in the form of the British Royal Navy’s HMS Daring. She was the first ship to take aid and supplies to Argostoli, the crew of which are commemorated in Argostoli by a street named after the ship.

The Israelis formed rescue crews offering emergency medical aid, food and water to the people. An Israeli warship was used to take wounded people from Kefalonia to the city of Patras to be hospitalized. The help offered by Israel to the people of Kefalonia is formally recognized and every year the local authorities hold an event to honour the members of the international forces that helped the locals. There is also a street named after Israel in recognition of the help offered by the. Various countries continued to contribute after the earthquake - Sweden made the children’s hospital and there are other wooden houses which were built by the Serbs.

The tragedy and sadness of this event shocked the very people that came to the islanders rescue. They faced scenes similar to a war zone. Kefalonia had been left battered, burning, smouldering and with practically nothing standing. Rescue workers reports say they encountered blackened bodies lying near a shoreline these people had been laying there for 2 days without food and water. They witnessed people grey with dust digging through the rubble in hope to find their lost relatives and possessions. They say one of the worst things they encountered was an awful stench which filled the air - the smell was that of putrefying flesh.

People were left confused and in shock as they had lost their homes, possessions, friends and family members all at once. Tents were erected as make shift hospitals and operating theatres. The August sweltering heat hampered the situation. People had to work hard doing heavy physical activities with little food, water in the hottest month of the year.

Virtually all of the majestic old stone buildings on the island, constructed during Venetian and then British rule, were destroyed, save for the Fiskardo area in the north of the island. So much damage had been done complete towns and villages had to be rebuilt. This was done to new plans with strict building regulations in place to factor-in earthquakes and all new constructions now a days have to be reinforced with steel and be capable of withstanding major earthquakes. Therefore, an earthquake similar to that of 12th August would certainly result in far less destruction.

Life on the island prior to the quakes had not been easy and many islanders existed at subsistence level from agriculture and fishing. The devastation was so complete that around 100,000 islanders emigrated following the earthquake, mainly to America, Australia and South Africa.

In the years that followed, reconstruction and economic development has restored the island to a normal pace. Gradually many Kefalonians have returned to the island investing in its development making it in to one of Greece’s best loved islands.

Earthquakes are a regular feature of life on Kefalonia but are usually over before realisation occurs.

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