The 1979 Tumaco Earthquake

Posted by Karl Lundgren on

In the early hours of December 12, 1979, as the sun lazily began to illuminate the tranquil coastal town of Tumaco, Colombia, its residents were blissfully unaware of the impending cataclysm that would shatter their world. Tumaco, nestled between the lush greenery of the Andes and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, was a haven of simplicity—a place where the ebb and flow of the tides dictated the rhythm of life.

As dawn broke, painting the sky with hues of pink and gold, Tumaco's residents began their day, utterly unaware that Mother Nature was about to unleash a force so powerful it would leave an indelible mark on the town's history. At 6:59 am local time, the earth beneath Tumaco quivered with an intensity that belied the serenity of the dawn. The 1979 Tumaco earthquake, registering a magnitude of 8.1, had struck, setting in motion a series of events that would forever alter the landscape and the lives of those who called this coastal haven home.

In this article, we embark on a journey back in time to explore the harrowing events of that fateful day—the ominous tremors, the tumultuous waves, and the aftermath that left Tumaco forever changed. Through the lens of untold stories and eyewitness accounts, we unravel the layers of devastation, the resilience of the communities, and the lessons that echo through time. Join us as we delve into the heart of the 1979 Tumaco earthquake, an episode that not only shook the ground beneath their feet but also the very fabric of human existence.

Natural disasters have an inexplicable ability to shake the very foundations of human existence, leaving a lasting impact on communities and altering the course of history. The 1979 Tumaco earthquake, a seismic event that struck the southwestern coast of Colombia, serves as a haunting reminder of the destructive power Mother Nature can unleash. In this article, we will delve into the details of the Tumaco earthquake, exploring its origins, the aftermath, and the resilience of the communities affected.

I. Setting the Stage

On December 12, 1979, the tranquil coastal town of Tumaco, located in the Nariño Department of Colombia, experienced a seismic jolt that would reverberate through the region for years to come. Nestled on the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area known for its seismic activity, Tumaco was no stranger to the occasional tremor. However, what transpired on that fateful day was far more devastating than anything the town had experienced in recent memory.

II. The Earthquake Strikes

The Tumaco earthquake, registering a magnitude of 8.1, struck at 6:59 am local time. The epicenter was situated approximately 105 kilometers southwest of Tumaco, in the Pacific Ocean. The powerful quake, resulting from the subduction of the Nazca Plate beneath the South American Plate, unleashed a force that shook the very foundations of the coastal region.

The violent tremors lasted for several minutes, causing widespread panic and destruction. In Tumaco, buildings crumbled, and the ground cracked open, swallowing entire structures. The force of the earthquake was felt as far away as Ecuador and northern Colombia. The seismic waves triggered a tsunami warning across the Pacific, adding to the chaos and fear that gripped the coastal communities.

III. Devastation Unveiled

As the dust settled and the aftershocks continued, the true extent of the devastation became painfully apparent. Tumaco, once a picturesque town, resembled a war zone. Countless homes were reduced to rubble, leaving families homeless and desperate. The local infrastructure, already fragile, succumbed to the earthquake's ferocity, further exacerbating the challenges faced by rescue and relief efforts.

The tsunami that followed the earthquake compounded the tragedy. Coastal areas were inundated, claiming additional lives and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Fishing villages, reliant on the sea for their livelihoods, faced economic ruin as boats and equipment were swept away by the colossal waves.

IV. Human Toll

The human toll of the 1979 Tumaco earthquake was staggering. Thousands lost their lives, and many more were left injured and traumatized. The rescue and recovery efforts were hampered by the remote and challenging terrain, as well as the limited resources available at the time.

The trauma inflicted upon the survivors was immeasurable. Families were torn apart, and communities were left to grapple with the emotional scars of the disaster. The resilience of the people of Tumaco, however, shone through as they banded together to rebuild their lives in the face of adversity.

V. Rebuilding and Resilience

In the aftermath of the Tumaco earthquake, the international community rallied to provide aid and support. Humanitarian organizations, governments, and individuals came together to assist in the recovery efforts. Emergency shelters were erected, medical aid was dispatched, and efforts to restore basic infrastructure were initiated.

The process of rebuilding, however, was not merely physical. The emotional and psychological scars left by the earthquake required a different kind of resilience. Counseling services, community support programs, and initiatives aimed at fostering a sense of unity and solidarity became integral components of the recovery process.

VI. Lessons Learned

The Tumaco earthquake of 1979 served as a wake-up call for both Colombia and the global community. It highlighted the importance of earthquake preparedness, particularly in regions prone to seismic activity. Building codes were revisited and strengthened to ensure that structures could withstand future earthquakes, and early warning systems were implemented to provide communities with crucial seconds to prepare and evacuate.

Furthermore, the disaster prompted a reevaluation of emergency response and recovery strategies. Lessons learned from Tumaco contributed to the development of more effective disaster management protocols, ensuring a more coordinated and efficient response to future catastrophes.


The 1979 Tumaco earthquake stands as a poignant chapter in the history of Colombia—a tale of destruction, resilience, and rebuilding. The scars left by the seismic event are still visible, but so too is the indomitable spirit of the communities that rose from the rubble. As we reflect on this tragic episode, let it serve as a reminder of the need for preparedness, compassion, and global solidarity in the face of nature's unpredictable fury.

So what can we do to get better prepared?


A kit is not a safety blanket you just purchase to make yourself feel better, it is an important investment in your household’s safety and preparedness. Not all emergency kits are created equal, and we highly recommend using the Province of BC and Government of Canada resources when building or buying a kit. We are also pleased to offer Earthquake Kits that developed to meet the government requirements for emergency preparedness. Visit our Gov BC Earthquake Kit product page to view the contents of our kits and feel free to use this as a guideline for assembling your own. What’s important to us is not that you buy a kit from us, but that every household have a kit at the ready in case something unexpected should occur.


The Province of BC and the Federal Government have made huge strides in this area in recent years implementing an Emergency Notifications network through mobile carriers and testing it to great success levels. This can provide seconds to even minutes of advanced notice prior to an earthquake being felt in any given location. However, a network of this complexity relies on strategically positioned censors along the coastline. We need to continue expanding this network of sensors and make sure that existing censors are being properly monitored and maintained.

We also need to expand from mobile phone notifications to physical alarms in homes, buildings, and especially schools/daycares.

For more details on how this Early Detection Grid works, please check out the following video by the CBC several years ago.


Know the Hazards

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Make Your Plan

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Guides and Resources

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Evacuation and Recovery Resources

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