The Columbian cities of Armenia and Calcara were struck by a major earthquake, with a Magnitude of 5.8, at 18:19 GMT (1:19 PM local time) Monday January 25, 1999. The initial shock was followed 4 hours later, at 22:40 (5:40 PM local time) GMT by a Magnitude 5.4 aftershock. Although initially 1000-2000 people were feared killed, the confirmed death toll now stands at 938, with 4117 injuries and 400,000 homeless, according to government figures. Armenia is a city of 300,000 in the coffee growing region of Columbia, 140 miles from Bogota. Much of the city lay in ruins after the quake. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed. Many of the collapsed buildings were unreinforced concrete. Officials fear more casualties from hunger and disease. Long term damage to the coffee industry is feared. The coffee plants themselves were not damaged, for the most part, but many processing plants and roads necessary to bring the crop to market were destroyed. Repairs may be slow in coming. Coffee prices have risen on the world markets after the quake and wages in the coffee producing regions have dropped.
Distribution of emergency food and supplies has been a major problem. Supplies at first sat at the airport without the means of distribution to areas that needed it. Government officials were at first overwhelmed and ensnared in red tape as they attempt to respond. The mayor of Calcara had to go to the airport personally in order to obtain aid for his city.
Looting was widespread as desparate people tried to get food. 4,000 troops were deployed to try to control the looting, with limited success as some soldiers expressed sympathy for the looters. At least one supermarket was burned and other stores have given away food since it would have been taken anyway.
The quake's focus was unusually shallow for this region, only 10-20 miles underground. This shallow focus explains the severity of the damage, since in shallow quakes the earthquake waves reach the surface quickly with less chance to dissipate than deeper ones. This area is located near the edges of three tectonic plates, the Nazca Plate, the South American Plate and the Carribean Plate. Normally, we would expect an earthquake here to be caused by subduction of the Nazca Plate under the South American Plate. However, if this were the case, we would expect a deeper focus. See the Plate Tectonics page for more information on these processes
Here are some news stories about the quake:
BBC pictures of the Quake