The 20 Costliest Earthquakes in World History

Earthquakes are one of the world’s worst natural disasters. They collapse buildings and infrastructure while taking lives. Caused by movements of the Earth’s crust the energy released causes seismic waves. Some are weak but strong earthquakes can destroy cities. Earthquakes can trigger tsunamis, avalanches, landslides and fires that further take a toll on life and property. The effects of an earthquake and its aftermath are worse in heavily populated areas where more lives may be lost and great damage done to property and the city’s infrastructure. Depending on the strength of the earthquake and its geographic location earthquakes can be extremely costly. Some areas of the world have to completely rebuild following an earthquake.

Here are the top 20 costliest earthquakes in world history.

20. San Francisco, California

The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906 is considered to be one of the most significant earthquakes in history. The earthquake and subsequent fires nearly leveled the California and left property damage of $400 million. That is the equivalent to $10.7 billion today. The earthquake had a 7.8 magnitude and lasted 45 to 60 seconds. It occurred along the northern 296 miles of the San Andreas Fault. With the epicenter near the city of San Francisco, the effect of the quake were felt south of Los Angeles, north to Oregon and through central Nevada. The earthquake helped advance building codes for earthquake safer buildings and advanced the science of earthquakes. The San Francisco earthquake triggered fires that burned for 4 days. These were mostly caused by ruptured gas lines and account for the destruction of 90 percent of the damage. 3000 people lost their lives and 80 percent of the city of San Francisco was destroyed. 25,000 buildings were destroyed over 490 city blocks. The damage caused by the earthquake spread to surrounding agricultural areas and to cities including San Jose and Santa Rosa.

19. Alaska

The Great Alaska Earthquake struck on Good Friday, March 27, 1964. The 9.2 magnitude earthquake in south central Alaska is one of the strongest ever recorded. It triggered massive tsunamis that affected the entire coast of North America. The cost of the earthquake was over $570 million. The earthquake lasted 4 minutes and killed 15 people. More than 100 would die from the following tsunamis and landslides. An underwater landslide in Prince William Sound collapsed the harbor and docks in the city of Valdez killing 30 people. In the city of Chenega 23 of its 68 residents died in the tsunami. Buildings and infrastructure were heavily damaged and coastal cities were destroyed.

18. Tokyo, Japan

The “Great Kanto Earthquake” shook the main island of Honshu in Japan on September 1, 1923. The 7.9 magnitude earthquake triggered tsunamis and landslides causing further damage to the country. The damage cost over $600 million (that would be $14 billion today). A landslide pushed an entire train, train station and track into the sea. Over 142,000 died with 40,000 reported missing. Along with buildings and infrastructure damage, 570,000 homes were destroyed leaving 1.9 million people homeless. Japan would have more earthquakes including the costliest earthquake in history.

17. Valdivia, Chile

A 9.5 magnitude earthquake with the epicenter near the city of Valdivia, Chile struck May 22, 1960. Several severe earthquakes shook a wide swath of the country of Chile between May 21 and June 6. The damages were about $1 billion (that would be $6 billion today). The “Great Chilean Earthquake” lasted about 10 minutes and set off landslides and widespread tsunamis. Tsunamis reached Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia and the Aleutian Islands. Tsunamis off Chile’s coast reached waves as high as 82 feet. More than 6000 people died. 20,000 people were left homeless in the heavily damaged Valdivia. The damage was widespread and severe through much of the country of Chile.

16. Tangshan, China

On July 28, 1976 at 4 am a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Tangshan region of China. A second strong 7.1 magnitude aftershock followed hours later. The earthquake had the highest death toll of the twentieth century with about 255,000 people killed and 164,000 injured. The high death toll is in part attributed to the suddenness of the earthquake and, because it occurred at 4 am, most people were sleeping and unprepared. The earthquake struck with no warning pre-shocks. The initial earthquake lasted 14 to 16 seconds. Damage was extensive and tremors were felt far from the epicenter throughout China. 85 percent of the buildings in the Tangshan region were completely destroyed. It cost $1.3 billion to rebuild the damages, and the Chinese government at the time refused aid from the United Nations. This was one of the worst earthquakes in Chinese history.

15. Seattle/Tacoma, Washington

Named the “Nisqually Earthquake” after the Nisqually Delta, this earthquake centered in the southern Puget Sound and mostly affected areas including Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia. The 6.9 magnitude earthquake occurred on Ash Wednesday, February 28, 2001 and was felt throughout Washington, Oregon, Canada and Idaho. The damage was $2 billion. Fortunately there was no loss of life due to the earthquake, but there was a lot of property damage and infrastructure damage. Bridges and factories were heavily damaged. The air traffic control tower at Sea-Tac International Airport was damaged. Among the damaged buildings several were at thee Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base.

14. Kashmir, Pakistan

On October 8, 2005 a 7.6 magnitude earthquake shook northern Pakistan and Azad Kashmir. Effects of the earthquake were wide reaching and spread as far as Afghanistan, Tajikistan and western China. The total damage was $5.4 billion. The area was crippled by the earthquake and its aftershocks. Buildings, hospitals and schools were heavily damaged as well as infrastructure. An estimated 85,000 people died and more than 69,000 were injured. Many were left homeless and it took many years to rebuild the area.

13. Nepal

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015 causing $10 billion. The epicenter was the Gorkha District in Barpak, Gorkha and the effects were widespread. More than 5000 people were killed and over 10,000 suffered injuries. Many were left homeless. Many buildings including historically significant buildings and religious sites were destroyed in the worst earthquake to strike Nepal since 1934. The earthquake triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest killing 21 climbers. Another avalanche in the Langtank Valley left 250 people missing. A 7.3 magnitude aftershock caused further damage on May 12.

12. Jiji, Taiwan

On September 20, 1999 Taiwan was hit by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake, the deadliest in the nation since a 1935 earthquake. Known locally as the “921” earthquake it caused $10 billion in damages. Over 2400 people were killed and 11,300 were injured. 100,000 people were left homeless. The earthquake severely damaged 53,768 buildings including 820 schools. Power was lost due to damaged power stations and the automatic shutdown of 3 nuclear power plants. The main Central Cross-Island Highway was severely damaged. The earthquake triggered 132 landslides crushing homes.

11. Emilia, Italy

Known as the “Emilia Earthquakes”, the northern region of Italy was struck by several earthquakes between May 20 and June 3, 2012. The epicenter was near the city of Bologna. The first earthquake was a 6.1 magnitude and left 7 people dead and many buildings and homes severely damaged. Factories and agricultural land were damaged. More than 100 historically significant buildings were damaged. The first earthquake was followed b a 5.2 magnitude earthquake an hour later. A third earthquake on May 29 was a 5.8 magnitude and left 20 people dead. Many more buildings were damaged due to being weakened by the first earthquake. An aftershock on June 3 further caused damage. The cost of the earthquakes were $15.8 billion.

10. Izmit, Turkey

Northern Turkey was shaken by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake on August 17, 1999 that caused $20 billion in damages. The earthquake lasted 37 seconds. Over 17,000 people died and a half million people were left homeless. The city of Izmit was badly damaged. The western part of Istanbul also suffered severe damages as well as other surrounding areas. The brunt of the earthquake hit industrialized and heavily populated areas. Automotive plants, oil refineries and the Turkish Naval Headquarters were heavily damaged. A fire sparked by the earthquake spread to an oil refinery. Broken water mains limited means to put the fire out.

9. Leninakan, Armenia

Armenia, at the time a part of the Soviet Union, was hit by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake on December 7, 1988. The earthquake is known as the “Spitak Earthquake” and caused $20 billion in damages. The epicenter was in an industrial area of northern Armenia which housed a nuclear power plant, electrical substations and food and chemical industries. More than 25,000 people were reported dead from the earthquake and 130,000 were left injured. Many buildings were destroyed, and the country has since instilled stricter building codes.

8. Irpinia, Italy

On November 23, 1980 southwestern Italy was hit with a 6.9 magnitude earthquake and 90 aftershocks. The cost to repair the damage was $20 billion. The cities of Naples, Salerno, Lioni and others were heavily damaged with building collapses and infrastructure damage. Over 2400 people died and 7700 were injured. 250,000 were left homeless. In 1 town, 100 people died when a medieval church collapsed during Sunday service.

7. Chuetsu, Japan

A series of severe earthquakes occurred off the coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu in 2004. It began with a 6.6 magnitude earthquake on October 23, 2004. In a 66 hour period 15 more earthquakes shook the region. 68 people died and more than 4500 people were injured. The earthquake damaged many buildings and broke water mains. Electricity, telephone and internet service were interrupted by the earthquakes. Several railroad tracks were damaged and a train derailed during the first earthquake. Triggered landslides destroyed houses and cars and closed several highways. Some residents were unable to return to their homes for more than 2 years.

6. Chile

Most of the South American country of Chile was damaged by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake on February 27, 2010. The earthquake lasted 3 minutes and triggered tsunamis and fires further causing damage. The overall damage was $30 billion. The earthquake strongly shook 6 of the most heavily populated regions of the country. 525 people died and 25 were missing. 9 percent of the population of Chile lost their home. Damages in the city of Santiago included a fire at a chemical plant and 3 collapsed hospitals. Power outage affected 93 percent of the country’s population for several days. Tsunamis triggered by the earthquake damaged coastal towns with the heaviest damage in the port of Talcahuano. The earthquake triggered tsunami warnings in 53 countries. Minor damage was caused by tsunamis that reached San Diego, California and the Tohoku region of Japan.

5. Christchurch, New Zealand

On June 13, 2011 the South Island of New Zealand was hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that caused major damage. The city of Canterbury and its suburbs received the brunt of the damage. The cost to repair was $40 billion. There were 185 deaths and many injuries caused by the earthquake. When the Canterbury Television Building collapsed and caught on fire 115 people died. The Pyne Gould Corporation building collapsed killing 18 people. 8 more were killed when masonry fell on a bus. Other buildings severely damaged included a medical clinic and an English language school as well as several churches and countless apartment buildings and homes. The region also suffered heavy road and bridge damage as well as other infrastructure damage.

4. Northridge, California

One of California’s costliest earthquakes occurred on January 17, 1994 and cost about $50 billion. The 6.7 magnitude earthquake lasted just 10 to 20 seconds. It was followed by 2 6.0 aftershocks. The magnitudes are the highest to strike an urban area in North America. The area affected was the north central San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. Damages spread to the cities of Santa Monica, Simi Valley and Santa Clarita. The earthquake caused 57 deaths and over 8700 people were injured. It is believed the death toll could have been higher had it not been Martin Luther King Junior Day, a federal holiday. In the Northridge Meadows Apartment building, 13 people lost their loves. The earthquake collapsed the busy Santa Monica Freeway and damaged Interstates 10 and 5. Radio stations and television broadcasts were interrupted due to the earthquake which caused damage to studio sets and stages.

3. Sichuan, China

An 8.0 and a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the Sichuan region of China in the west and northwest region of the country on May 8, 2008. The earthquakes caused over $145 billion in damage. The event was the deadliest and costliest natural disaster to strike China. Over 69,000 people lost their lives with 18,000 people missing. Those left injured were more than 37,000. Millions were left homeless. The most expensive earthquake in China leveled much of the region.

2. Kobe, Japan

The Great Hanshin Earthquake struck the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan on January 17, 1995 and caused $200,000 in damages. The 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit the city of Kobe the worst. Overall more than 6000 people were killed. Over 400,000 buildings were destroyed as well as elevated roadways, railroads and bridges. Of the 150 quays in the Port of Kobe 120 were destroyed. Over 300 fires were caused by the earthquake and the city infrastructures were crippled.

1. Tohoku, Japan

On March 11, 2011 Japan was hit with one of the worst earthquakes ever. The costliest earthquake to strike the world cost about $235 billion along with more than 15,800 lives. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook northeastern Japan and triggered a large tsunami which caused further damage. The earthquake crippled the Japanese economy and caused damage to structures, roads and railways. More than 129,000 buildings were destroyed. The earthquake set off a panic that the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant would explode and fears of leaked radiation. Japan continues to rebuild from the world’s costliest earthquake in history.

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