The recent powerful earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand served as stark reminder of the unpredictability, helplessness and destruction that accompanies natural disasters. Those who live on or near the Pacific Ring of Fire,including Californians and Alaskans, are faced with the lingering threat of such an event each day. In an instant, their lives can be turned upside down — or ended — upon the sudden rupturing of a geological fault within the Earth's crust. Below are the deadliest, most dreadful earthquakes that have occurred in U.S. history (including those that occurred in territories that eventually became a part of the U.S.). If you're from the West Coast, then, chances are, you and your family can empathize with our friends in New Zealand.
- San Francisco, California, 1906 — Roughly 3,000 Fatalities: Galveston and New Orleans are the only major American cities that have suffered comparably catastrophic natural disasters as San Francisco did in 1906. In addition to the scores of people who perished, it was estimated that the financial, trade and cultural center of the West accumulated $524 million in property loss, much of it due to the uncontrollable fires that engulfed the city after gas mains ruptured. Almost three out of four people were left homeless and were forced to relocate to different locations around the Bay Area. Initially, just 365 deaths were reported by city officials who didn't want to deter new potential residents and disrupt the city's rebuilding effort. San Francisco quake pictured
- Unimak Island, Alaska, 1946 — 165 Fatalities: The 1946 Aleutian Islands earthquake resulted in a massive tsunami that killed 159 Hawaiians in Hilo, several Alaskans — Alaska was a U.S. territory at the time — and even one Californian. Waves ranging in height from 45 to 130 feet crashed into the coasts and caused panic among residents of coastal communities. Infamously, a wave more than 100 feet high toppled the Scotch Cap Lighthouse in Unimak Island, sweeping away and killing all five lighthouse keepers. Because the earthquake registered below an eight (7.8) and thus wasn't big enough to trigger a tsunami on its own, scientists hypothesize that the massive wave was caused by an underwater landslide.
- Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1964 — 128 Fatalities: Longtime Anchorage residents will not soon forget the events of 1964. The Great Alaskan Earthquake, a magnitude 9.2, holds the distinction of being the most powerful recorded earthquake in North American history. Thirty blocks of poorly constructed buildings in the downtown area of state's biggest city were damaged or destroyed. Major landslides were the primary culprits, notably affecting a 130-acre area at Turnagain Heights and killing 30 people in Port Valdez. A 27-foot tsunami killed 23 people in Chenega and additional tsunami damage occurred in Hawaii and Japan.
- Long Beach, California, 1933 — 115 Fatalities: Located in the highly populated Los Angeles area, Long Beach was a hub of activity during the early 1930s, which explains, in part, why the 1933 earthquake was so costly. Many of the fatalities were a result of poorly constructed buildings and the ensuing panic that occurred when earth began to move. Property damage cost about $40 million, a figure, along with the unnecessarily high death toll, that contributed to the passage of the Field Act, which mandated earthquake-proof construction of buildings in California.
- Ka'u District, Island of Hawaii, 1868 — 77 Fatalities: More than 90 years before it officially became the 50th state, the Kingdom of Hawaii suffered a magnitude 7.9 earthquake that shredded the Kau, Keiawa, Ninole, Punaluu and Waiohinu areas, disintegrating wooden and straw houses and knocking over stone churches. A three kilometer-wide landslide submerged the hillside at Kapapala, killing 31 people and destroying everything that stood in its way. The Kau-Puna coast was struck with a tsunami that drowned 46 people. Fortunately, the more densely-populated modern Hawaii has yet to experience such an unforeseen disaster.
- San Fernando, California, 1971 — 65 Fatalities: The images of collapsed freeway overpasses that we associate with more recent earthquakes originated with the 1971 San Fernando quake. Several major structures were damaged, including buildings at the Olive View and Veterans Administration Hospitals, as tectonic ruptures shook the area. It resulted in a $505 million in property damage and the injuries of more than 2,000 people.
- Loma Prieta, California, 1989 — 63 Fatalities: The nation witnessed the Loma Prieta earthquake on live television as it interrupted the World Series, which, coincidentally, involved the two teams from the Bay Area. Little did most people know, including the fans, players and reporters in the stadium, that it was severe enough to cause 3,757 injuries and $6 billion in damage. In the subsequent days, television news programs relayed images of the collapse of the two-level Cypress Street Viaduct, a part of Interstate 880 in West Oakland, which killed 42 people. A 76-by-50-foot section of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge also collapsed; one person who drove into the resulting gap in the road died.
- Northridge, California, 1994 — 60 Fatalities: Five years after the Loma Prieta ordeal, Southern California was hit with convulsions almost as strong and even more destructive. The powerful ground acceleration caused roughly $20 billion in damage and injured more than 7,000 people, with the Northridge and Sherman Oaks areas bearing the brunt of the quake. Freeway overpasses collapsed, the scoreboard at Anaheim Stadium plunged into the seats and fires damaged parts of Malibu, San Fernando Valley and Venice. The delayed filming of various shows, includingSeinfeld and General Hospital, was a notable disruption caused by the quake.
- Charleston, South Carolina, 1886 — 60 Fatalities: Few people realize the eastern U.S. is susceptible to earthquakes too. Charleston suffered through one of the largest quakes to hit the region in 1886, when 2,000 buildings around town — almost all of the buildings in the city — were damaged. Additional structural damage was reported as far away as Central Ohio and shaking could be felt as far away as Chicago and New Orleans. To this day, buildings battered by the quake still stand, adding to the historical mystique of the city.
- Hebgen Lake, Montana, 1959 — 28 Fatalities: Yellowstone is no stranger to seismic activity — it experiences thousands of earthquakes each year, most of which are undetectable to people. On several occasions, a quake with a magnitude of six or greater has shaken the park, including one that occurred nearby Hebgen Lake in 1959. All of the fatalities were caused by an enormous landslide consisting of rocks, soil and trees that cascaded down Madison River Canyon. The mass of material halted the flow of the Madison River and created a 53-meter-deep lake. New geysers erupted, hot springs were muddied and steam emanated from cracks in the ground. The environmental impact of the quake made Yellowstone an even more fascinating study for geologists.