The 1991 Limon Earthquake

Posted by Karl Lundgren on

On a warm afternoon in April, just as schools were releasing students and offices were bustling with the day's end activities, the ground beneath Limon, Costa Rica, began to tremble. This was no minor tremor, often brushed off by locals accustomed to the shivers of the earth, but a violent upheaval that would become a defining moment in the nation's history. The clock froze at 3:57 pm, and within seconds, a picturesque Caribbean paradise transformed into a scene of chaos and devastation.

Imagine the streets of Limon, usually vibrant with the sounds of commerce and laughter, now echoing with the crumbling of buildings and the cries for help. Roads that led home or to the heart of the city split open as the earth shifted beneath them. The sudden destruction caught everyone off-guard, turning routine activities into a fight for survival.

As the dust settled and the immediate shock subsided, the scale of the disaster became apparent: dozens of lives lost, thousands injured, and a city in ruins. This was the aftermath of the 1991 Limon Earthquake, a 7.7 magnitude quake that not only reshaped the landscape but also the future of disaster preparedness in Costa Rica.

April 22, 1991, remains etched in the memory of Costa Ricans as the day when the earth roared. At 3:57 pm local time, a powerful earthquake struck the Limon province on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Known as the Limon Earthquake, this natural disaster measured 7.7 on the Richter scale and lasted approximately 10 seconds, long enough to change the landscape and the lives of many.

The Setting

Costa Rica, renowned for its stunning natural beauty and biodiversity, is also one of the most seismically active countries in the world. The collision of the Cocos and Caribbean plates makes the region particularly prone to earthquakes. Despite this, the intensity of the Limon Earthquake took everyone by surprise.

Impact and Devastation

The earthquake’s epicenter was located near the town of Pandora, but its effects were felt as far away as Panama and Nicaragua. Limon, the most significantly affected area, saw immense destruction. Buildings crumbled, infrastructure failed, and streets split open as the earth shifted. The picturesque beaches and lush landscapes that characterized the region were dramatically altered.

Approximately 47 people lost their lives, and over 7,500 were injured. The devastation did not end with the shaking; numerous aftershocks, some measuring as strong as 5.0, continued to terrorize the already traumatized residents. These aftershocks hindered initial rescue and recovery efforts, compounding the chaos and damage.

Economic Repercussions

The economic impact of the earthquake was profound. Limon is an important economic zone for Costa Rica, particularly due to its banana plantations and as a crucial port for exporting goods. The earthquake severely damaged the port facilities, which disrupted trade and inflicted a significant blow to the national economy. Estimates placed the total damage at around $100 million, a substantial economic setback for a developing country.

Humanitarian Response and Recovery

The response to the disaster was both immediate and enduring. National rescue teams were dispatched to the affected areas, and international aid flowed into Costa Rica from around the world. The recovery efforts focused not only on rebuilding the physical structures but also on providing medical and psychological support to the survivors. Despite the severity of the disaster, the resilient spirit of the Costa Rican people shone through. Communities came together, demonstrating remarkable solidarity in the face of adversity.

Long-term Changes and Learnings

The Limon Earthquake served as a critical learning point for Costa Rica in terms of disaster preparedness and response. It highlighted the need for improved building codes and more rigorous enforcement of construction standards, particularly in seismically active zones. In the years following the earthquake, Costa Rica enhanced its seismic monitoring and early warning systems, aiming to mitigate the impact of future quakes.

Educational programs were also developed to raise awareness and prepare the population for potential earthquakes. These programs included drills and the dissemination of knowledge on how to react during and after seismic events, significantly improving the country’s resilience.

Environmental and Scientific Insights

The earthquake provided valuable data for geoscientists, helping to advance the understanding of seismic activity in the region. Studies conducted in the aftermath revealed the complexities of the tectonic interactions at play and led to better predictive models of seismic activity in Central America.

The Limon Earthquake also had notable environmental impacts. It caused land shifts and changes in local waterways, which in turn affected the region’s biodiversity. These changes have been the subject of ongoing environmental studies aimed at understanding the broader ecological impacts of seismic events.


The 1991 Limon Earthquake was more than just a natural disaster; it was a turning point for Costa Rica in terms of environmental awareness, scientific research, and community resilience. As we look back, it serves as a poignant reminder of the power of nature and the importance of preparedness. The lessons learned continue to influence policies and practices, ensuring that Costa Rica is better equipped to face future challenges. The spirit of "Pura Vida" — pure life — that defines the country, ensures that even the most challenging times are met with strength and unity.

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

Knowing which hazards you need to plan for is the first step to getting prepared


Build Your Kits

Put together a household emergency kit and grab-and-go bag.


Make Your Plan

Plan how you will respond to a disaster to stay focused and safe.


Guides and Resources

Preparedness guides and community resources are available to help get ready for emergencies.


Evacuation and Recovery Resources

Learn what happens in evacuations, what financial assistance you might be eligible for and other recovery resources.


Education Programs and Toolkits

Create awareness about preparing for emergencies with Prepared BC's easy-to-use education programs and social media toolkits.

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