A Century Apart, Deadly Earthquakes Bring a Diaspora Together
May 12, 2015

A image from 1908 of the "Little Italy" section of New York. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On December 28, 1908 one of the worst earthquakes in Europe’s history tore into the Messina Strait in Southern Italy. The devastating earthquake was subsequently followed by a Tsunami which pounded the adjacent coastal regions. The devastation was incomprehensible; an estimated 200,000 people were killed. Southern Italy was already a place with high instances of poverty. Many families were already leaving the region in great numbers to seek better opportunities in the United States. One such envoy was a group of about 500 Italians, who were on board a ship called the Germania when the earthquake hit. The steamer was not equipped with a wireless system, and while the officers and Captain were aware of what just happened, they purposely maintained a code of silence for fear of pandemonium among those traveling in steerage. The grief among the travelers when the ship finally reached U.S. shores was nearly as terrible as feared.

While time has passed and technology has transformed the world, unfortunately there are still echoes of the Messina earthquake in 2015. Last month, an earthquake that registered a 7.8 on the Richter scale killed more than 8,000 in Nepal and left many bereaved Nepalese immigrants here in New York.

Nepal is home to one of the most impressive mountain ranges on the planet. Nestled amoung the peaks are isolated villages sometimes remote from technological growth . After the last month’s devastating earthquake, friends and relatives were frantic to find news of survivors and the dead. Downed phone lines and landslides have made the remotest areas nearly impossible to reach. The tragedy in such a remote region has brought the 21st century much closer to the confusion of the Messina earthquake a century ago, when it could have taken New York relatives days or even weeks to figure out who had survived. Some Nepalese immigrants to New York have been able to make use of social media to insure the safety of their family and friends. Facebook and Whatsapp quickly created systems for users in danger zones to ‘check in’.

Today, planes are laden with aid and family members returning to Nepal to search for lost friends and family. In 1908, steamers brought frantic recent immigrants back to Sicily. Similar to Nepal, there were large governmental efforts made to support the victims of the Messina earthquake.  A Navy made powerful by President Theodore Roosevelt was directed to bring aid to the region. Congress had also voted to appropriate supplies and funding for rehabilitation.

However, Italians in 1908 and Nepalese immigrants in 2015 both felt the need to raise money and contribute what they could individually. In 1908 the staff of the Knickerbocker Hotel, many of whom were recent Italian immigrants, donated $1,500 to the Red Cross. By 1908, there were also enough Italians in New York to sustain several Italian-language newspapers, some of which sold postcards to raise money.

Among Nepalese immigrants today there is some concern regarding the effectiveness of international aid efforts and the Nepalese government. The Nepalese population of New York has dramatically increased to 74,000 from around 2,400 in 1990. Several Nepali newspapers which are published in the city have all rallied for support and funds, but just as in 1908, smaller business owners have become unexpected focal points of aid. Mingma T. Sherpa’s cellphone shop has become the gathering point for donations of first aid and other supplies. The New York Nepalese Football Club went door to door in Jackson Heights, raising around $23,000 for relief efforts.

Like Italy in 1908, the country of Nepal was losing people to opportunities in New York as well as to more accessible labor markets in the Saudi gulf. Strategists and politicians now fear that after much of the earthquake relief has been completed, even more Nepalis will leave the beautiful but isolated villages skirting Kathmandu.

Today Nepal was hit by another earthquake of 7.3 magnitude. While the full extent of the damage is still unclear our thoughts continue to be with the people of Nepal and their friends and families here in New York.


–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator 

With research from:

Italian Americans: Bridges to Italy, Bonds to America Paperback – March 28, 2010by Luciano J. Iorizzo (Author, Editor), Ernest E. Rossi (Author, Editor)