World Facts

America's Most Disastrous And Expensive Earthquakes

Nearly all of the most damaging earthquakes in the United States have been centered in California.

The United States’ geography covers some of the most seismically active regions in the world. It’s positioned near a multitude of large sea basins, and covers an immense area of 9,826,675 square kilometers. These are some of the most obvious reasons why earthquakes of all magnitudes occur in the region so frequently. There have been some disasters, however, that stand out from the rest, having had devastating impacts at every level: from local communities to the national economy.

To put some of the nastiest seismic events into perspective, we have used official information from the US Data Service to allow us to rank those earthquakes that have been the most devastating to the United States, and better appreciate the financial losses they have managed to leave in their wakes.

The Earthquake That Hit the Economy the Hardest

January 17, 1994 was supposed to be an exciting day, with the FIFA World Cup on its way and many other special events about to take place around the US. For people in Los Angeles, however, this particular date is to be remembered in infamy because of a disastrous seismic event that rocked the area – the Northridge Earthquake.

The San Fernando Valley in the Los Angeles region of California was the epicenter of the disaster that struck at exactly 4:30:55 am. The event lasted slightly over 20 seconds, taking the lives of nearly 60 victims and leading to the injuries of more than 5,000 people in this short time. The earthquake was so massive that people living as far as Nevada felt some of the tremors.

The recovery measures after these 20 seconds lasted for months, and the total amount paid for the restoration and financial help added up to $30 billion US dollars. Only about $15 billion was covered by insurance policies, and many people had to pay out of their pockets in order to cover the restoration expenses if they were to be paid off at all.

Other Notable Disasters

Though the Los Angeles earthquake is ranked as the most financially devastating one, it’s not the only disaster that has left a major dent in the US economy. In October, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco, causing total economic damage of $5.6 billion dollars. With a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake killed 63 people and injured 3,757 more.

The third most devastating earthquake that has ever hit the country was the Nisqually earthquake of 2011. It shook Seattle and its surrounding vicinities. With a magnitude of 6.8, the tremors lasted for 45 seconds and the tremors were felt as far away as Oregon. The Nisqually earthquake led to financial losses totaling $2 billion dollars.

Better Disaster Management, Reduced Economic Impact?

It’s interesting to point out that only a few of the earthquakes that took place from 2000 to 2010 have made it onto our list of America’s most devastating seismic disasters. The 2014 event in San Francisco, California was one of the newest additions to our list of most financially devastating earthquakes. The South Napa earthquake was estimated to be the biggest one to hit the area since 1989. The effect it had on the US economy equaled 700 million dollars.

It seems that US authorities are becoming more and more aware of the difficulties and risks stemming from geographic and geological factors that make some areas so prone to seismic events. The country has one of the most extensive Red Cross networks in the world to provide fast and effective medical aid, and maintains the world-renowned Earthquake Hazards Program. Furthermore, the US Department of Homeland Security’s FEMA successfully implements the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), aiding people in terms of increasing awareness, which could potential saving many lives in the event of a far-reaching seismic disaster.

America's Most Disastrous And Expensive Earthquakes

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RankEarthquakeeconomic damage (in million U.S. dollars)
1January 17, 1994, Los Angeles30,000
2October 18, 1989, San Francisco5,600
3February 28, 2001, Seattle2,000
4March 28, 1964, Prince William Sound1,020
5August 24, 2014, San Francisco, California700
6February 9, 1971, Los Angeles535
7April 18, 1906, San Francisco524
8October 1, 1987, Los Angeles213
9December 22, 2003, San Robbles (California)200
10October 15, 2006, Hawai Island150
11June 28, 1992, Landers California100
12April 22, 1992, South California100

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