I started this post intending to discuss the 10 worst earthquakes, and what that means for those living in earthquake country. As often happens, my brain chose to go in a different direction. I invite you to follow its path – “we” found a lot of fascinating disaster information!

2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami killed almost everyone on this train in Sri Lanka. Photo by James Gordon.

2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami killed almost everyone on this train in Sri Lanka. Photo by James Gordon.

Ten Largest Earthquakes since 1900

1)            9.5         Chile                     1960      1,655 killed

2)            9.2         Alaska                  1964      128 killed

3)            9.1         Sumatra               2004      227,898 killed (mostly from large tsunami)

4)            9.0         Japan                    2011      20,350 killed   (mostly from large tsunami)

5)            9.0         Kamchatka           1952      2336 killed

6)            8.8         Chile                      2010      550 killed

7)            8.8         Ecuador                1906      1,000

8)            8.7         Alaska                  1965      7 killed

9)            8.6         Sumatra               2005      1300 killed

10)          8.6         Tibet                    1950      1526 killed

My thoughts:

1)      4 of the 10 largest earthquakes happened in the last 8 years! Are giant earthquakes on the increase? Luckily, the U.S. Geological Society page “Are Earthquakes Really on the Increase?reassured me that our ability to locate and communicate about earthquakes has improved, but actual earthquakes remain the same. In fact, in any given year the world can expect about 17 major earthquakes (7.0 – 7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or above). Reassuring? Not really!

2)      I don’t want to live in Alaska, Sumatra, or Chile (6/10 of the largest earthquakes happened there)! But wait – not very many people died in Alaska despite giant earthquakes. Do deaths have anything to do with earthquake magnitude? This led to…

Destruction of the Nursing School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2010 earthquake. Photo by AIDG.

Destruction of the Nursing School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2010 earthquake. Photo by AIDG.

Ten Deadliest Earthquakes since 1900

1)      7.0                 Haiti                                 2010      46,000 – 316,000 killed

2)      7.8                 China-Haiyuan                   1920      200,000 – 273,400 killed

3)      7.8                 China-Tangshan                1976      242,769 – 779,000 killed

4)      9.1                 Indian Ocean                     2004      227,898 – 320,000 killed

5)      7.9                 Japan, Kwanto                  1923      105,385 – 142800 killed

6)      7.1                 Italy-Messina                     1908      60,000 – 123,000 killed

7)      7.3                 Turkmenistan                    1948      10,000 – 176,000 killed

8)      7.9                 Peru                                1970      70,000 – 100,000 killed

9)      7.9                 China-Sichuan                   2008      68,000 – 87,587 killed

10)    7.6                  Pakistan                           2005      75,000 – 100,000 killed

My thoughts:

1)      Why such widely varying death reports – off by thousands (and for all disasters – not just earthquakes)! This one took some research. Some numbers include only people killed from the primary disaster (eg. things falling down in earthquakes), while others include secondary causes (eg. fire or tsunami). Missing are often lumped with dead, but some are really just displaced. Body counts don’t work because not all bodies are found. Official government numbers are the worst! They base numbers on inaccurate census information, or even worse, skew statistics for political purposes. Falsely high fatalities can earn more foreign aid and donations, whereas falsely low fatality rates hide government failures in preparation or response. And don’t forget the media! Initial media reports are wildly inaccurate. While understandable, their numbers are rarely corrected when better information becomes available. Incorrect media numbers seem to persist forever.

My final take on death statistics – It’s impossible to know the number killed in some disasters. You can estimate hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, or hundred thousands, but that’s about it!

2)      Earthquake magnitude obviously correlates poorly with mortality – 9 of the 10 deadliest were only in the 7.0-8.0 range. Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about our potential Pacific Northwest 9.0 earthquake! Or should I worry more? If we die, preparedness doesn’t matter. It’s when we survive that preparedness becomes crucial.

3)      If it isn’t earthquake magnitude, what causes high earthquake fatality rates? …..

Population Density of China (year 2000) - location of multiple deadly earthquakes. Photo by SEDACMaps.

Population Density of China (year 2000) – location of multiple deadly earthquakes. Photo by SEDACMaps.

Ten Reasons for Increased Earthquake Fatalities (my list – not in any statistical order):

1)      Population density – earthquakes in rural areas kill fewer people (duh!)

2)      Coastal location and risk of tsunami – think 2004 Indian Ocean and 2011 Japan

3)      Uncontrolled fires – the 1923 Japan earthquake killed 140,000 from fire alone!

4)      Building construction and age – older masonry buildings collapse

5)      Soil characteristics of building areas – consider liquefaction near lakes, bays, some rivers

6)      Socioeconomics of affected country – because of far too many reasons to list

7)      Time of day – are people home vs in schools, churches, etc.?

8)      Landslides – particularly in deforested areas

9)      Post-earthquake disease, famine, and exposure – the measure of your disaster response

10)   Preparedness – building retrofits, trained response, medical care (I had to throw preparedness in)

Now for a side thought from the deadliest list – the United States isn’t on here! How do we stack up compared to the rest of the world when it comes to deadly natural disasters?

Flooding in Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Greg Hounslow.

Flooding in Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Greg Hounslow.

Ten Worst United States Natural Disasters since 1900

1)      Galveston Hurricane                             1900      8000 killed

2)      San Francisco Earthquake                    1906      3400 killed

3)      Okeechobee Hurricane                          1928      2500 killed

4)      Hurricane Katrina                                   2005      1,836 killed

5)      Atlantic Gulf Hurricane                          1919      772 killed

6)      Great New England Hurricane               1928      700 killed

7)      Tri-State Tornado                                 1925      700 killed

8)      Dust Bowls                                           1930s    7000 killed

9)      United States Heat Wave                      1988      4,800 to 17,000 killed

10)   United Stated Heat Wave                      1980      1,700 killed

11)   Chicago Heat Wave                                1995      750 killed

My thoughts:

1)      The United States has very few deadly natural disasters. I couldn’t come up with 10 since 1990 that really qualified as deadly, and even these are not in the same ballpark as the deadliest global natural disasters.

2)      The most deadly natural events in the United States are not things we routinely consider disasters. They are actually heat waves, drought, and dust bowls. Although not listed, we’ve also had some relatively deadly cold weather. Given climate changes, does anyone see a problem approaching?

3)      If our disasters are “small”, why do they get so much press, even in the rest of the world? Could it be (shock and horror) money?

Money, money ,money!

Money, money ,money!

Ten of the World’s Costliest Disasters (Total Economic Cost)

1)      Honshu Earthquake, Japan                          2011      $230 billion

2)      Sichuan Earthquake, China                          2008      $147 billion

3)      Hanshin Earthquake, Japan                      1995      $144 billion

4)      Hurricane Katrina, United States                 2005      $137 billion

5)      Irpinia earthquake, Italy                                      1988      $52 billion

6)      Northridge Earthquake, United States              1994      $43 billion

7)      Hurricane Andrew, United States                       1992      $41 billion

8)      Chūetsu earthquake, Japan                                 2005      $32 billion

9)      Hurricane Ike, United States                               2008      $30 billion

10)   İzmit Earthquake, Turkey                                    1999      $26 billion

My thoughts:

1)      Tracking down disaster cost is even harder than tracking down fatalities. Following lots of initial estimates, there is very little looking back and adding it all up after “recovery”. I checked “money sites” – MSN Money and The Economist for example – to come up with my numbers, but I don’t guarantee they are correct.

2)      If you are poor, you don’t cost much. Despite their size, the economic cost of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake/tsunami were each estimated only between $8 and $14 billion. When the worth of your country is low (land value, income, etc.), losing hundreds of thousands of people doesn’t put much of a ripple in world economy.

3)      The United States has 4 in the top 10 most expensive disasters. We don’t lose many people, but it sure costs a lot to rebuild our communities to their previous condition.

4)      In 2011, there were 14 separate $1 billion-plus weather events in the United States, with losses topping $60 billion.  In 2012, Hurricane Sandy alone will probably approach this, despite being quite “small” on the global scale of natural disasters. How will we deal with steadily increasing disaster costs?

I hope you enjoyed my list “wandering”. As always, the more I learn, the more I question. Some of these topics clearly need an entire blog post sometime. Stay tuned!

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund, M.D.

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