Earthquake and Tsunami Devastate Sicily

More than one hundred thousand lives were lost and the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria, along with many villages, were destroyed by one of Europe’s deadliest earthquakes and the tsunami that followed. The rescue effort and aftermath of the disaster attracted worldwide attention.

Summary of Event

On December 28, 1908, at 5:20 a.m., an earthquake that would have measured a magnitude 7.5 on the modern Richter scale struck both coasts of the Strait of Messina, wreaking havoc on the Sicilian city of Messina and on the southern Italian town of Reggio Calabria. At that hour, most of the city’s inhabitants were indoors in their beds, and many were immediately killed by falling walls and buildings. Those who survived the initial tremor ran out into freezing rain in their nightclothes. Ten minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami, or tidal wave, engulfed the lower part of both cities and destroyed many coastal villages. In Messina, the quake and tsunami were followed by fires. Earthquakes;Sicily
[kw]Earthquake and Tsunami Devastate Sicily (Dec. 28, 1908)
[kw]Tsunami Devastate Sicily, Earthquake and (Dec. 28, 1908)
[kw]Sicily, Earthquake and Tsunami Devastate (Dec. 28, 1908)
[g]Italy;Dec. 28, 1908: Earthquake and Tsunami Devastate Sicily[02280]
[c]Disasters;Dec. 28, 1908: Earthquake and Tsunami Devastate Sicily[02280]
[c]Science and technology;Dec. 28, 1908: Earthquake and Tsunami Devastate Sicily[02280]
[c]Earth science;Dec. 28, 1908: Earthquake and Tsunami Devastate Sicily[02280]
Mazza, Francesco
Micheli, Giuseppe
Barzini, Luigi, Sr.
Cheney, Arthur S.

The losses from the disaster were enormous. Figures are varied and imprecise, mainly because most of the local records were destroyed, but estimates of deaths range from one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand. Messina, Reggio Calabria, and the surrounding villages and towns were almost totally destroyed. Half the towns’ inhabitants were killed, and 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed or unusable. Infrastructure and communications systems were destroyed, and government and law enforcement were nonexistent, since most of the officials had been killed. The American consul, Arthur S. Cheney, and his wife died in their bed, buried under thirty-five feet of rubble. Their bodies were recovered eighteen days after the disaster.

Relief was slow to come to the destroyed cities and their survivors. Many died of suffocation while trapped inside collapsed buildings and under rubble. Others lacked food, water, and clothing and died of injuries, starvation, or disease. Ships anchored in Messina’s harbor provided the first relief, evacuating the first of those rescued to Catania, Palermo, and Naples. When news reached the rest of the world, ships from England, the United States, and Russia sailed for Messina with medical supplies, food, and clothing. King Victor Emmanuel and Queen Elena of Italy arrived within days from Rome and worked among the ruins, digging for trapped survivors and distributing food.

The Italian government declared martial law under the command of Lieutenant General Francesco Mazza. In an effort to stop looting and the spread of disease, Mazza ordered evacuation of survivors who were still searching for trapped loved ones or digging out their homes. Both looters and frightened, grief-crazed survivors were ordered shot or arrested. The government and military were criticized for the long delay in sending ships and were charged with heartlessness and incompetence. At the same time, however, many acts of selflessness and heroism were recognized.

As supply and hospital ships began to arrive, media reports galvanized public response to the apparent collapse of civilization and social order caused by the devastation. Urgent short-term needs included help in burying the dead and medical supplies and food for the survivors. The International Red Cross, the U.S. and British navies, private charities, and private individuals (including diplomats and doctors) rushed to Messina and Reggio to help evacuate the survivors, bury the tens of thousands of dead who lay in the streets, and clear the rubble.

Journalists sent back detailed reports to newspapers in Italy and around the world. Luigi Barzini, Sr., of the Milan daily Corriere della sera was one of the most famous roving correspondents in Italy at the time. Stationed on a ship anchored in Messina harbor, he wrote daily columns describing the aftermath of the disaster, the responses of individuals and the military officials, and the stench of the unburied dead. Images of the disaster—particularly those of the ruined streets of Messina—were reprinted for several weeks in newspapers, rapidly produced books, and documentary films. The world was horrified by the sight of the crazed survivors and of the rotting dead. Grief and mourning were widespread in the United States as well as in Italy; many members of the Italian immigrant population in the United States came from Sicily and southern Italy.

Shelter for the survivors and those who came to their aid was needed urgently needed, but order and organization came at a slow pace. Giuseppe Micheli, a parliamentary deputy from Parma, set up a tent city with funds from a bank in Parma. Eventually, the tent city included a church, a post office, an infirmary, a records office, and a printing press, and it acted as a distribution center for food and supplies. Micheli worked with General Mazza to administer permits to survivors so that they could search for belongings and the dead, and Micheli was able to use his influence with the general to improve conditions and distribution of rations. Mazza was criticized for his inhumanity, but Micheli was admired by the population.

The cities of Messina and Reggio were plagued by fears of contagion and infection from the thousands of unburied dead. Few inhabitants remained: Many survivors were sent by ship to other Italian cities and to the United States. The region’s economy was destroyed, and there was talk of razing and abandoning the cities. The Italian bureaucracy was slow to respond to the crisis, and major efforts to clear the rubble did not begin until May, 1909.

As the international relief effort got under way, tents were replaced with wooden shelters. Help came from groups such as the American Village, which was funded and staffed by Americans living in Italy, by the U.S. Navy, and by the diplomatic corps. In April, 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Messina to give moral support and to view the progress of the relief effort. Queen Elena supported another such model village, Villaggio Regina Elena.

Massive long-term efforts were needed to rebuild the region. Gradually, new regulations for earthquake-proof building were formulated, and rebuilding became the driving force behind the area’s economy. For decades, politicians fought over control of reconstruction funds while Messina and Reggio remained full of destroyed buildings and temporary wooden huts. Some important government buildings were not rebuilt until the 1920’s.


By the early twentieth century, the importance of the newspaper correspondent as a personality had become firmly established in the Italian popular press. Barzini and others were striking examples of correspondents who provided personal reactions that were avidly read by the public. In Messina, these journalists found a rich mine of material and images that gave the impression that the social order had collapsed in the disaster area. The media shaped public reaction, and the disaster’s aftermath became a national and international drama. As a result, the relief effort was vast and significant on an individual as well as an international level. In addition, the devastation in Sicily and southern Italy and the collapse of the regional economy increased emigration to other European cities, South America, and the United States. Earthquakes;Sicily

Further Reading

  • Dickie, John, John Foot, and Frank M. Snowden, eds. Disastro! Disasters in Italy Since 1860: Culture, Politics, Society. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Sociological and political study of the impact of disasters on Italy’s modern history. Includes a comprehensive and informative chapter on the 1908 earthquake.
  • Elliott, Maud Howe. Sicily in Shadow and in Sun: The Earthquake and the American Relief Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1910. Firsthand account of an American living in Rome at the time of the disaster who traveled to Sicily to help in the relief effort. Includes photographs and drawings.
  • Miller, J. Martin. The Complete Story of the Italian Earthquake Horror. Chicago: J. T. Moss, 1909. Illustrated contemporary narrative of the disaster and its aftermath. Journalistic style, descriptions, and interviews with survivors reflect the interest this event held for the reading public of the time.

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