The United States is a big country, and many parts of the country are in areas of active tectonic activities. This makes them prone to tremors, earthquakes, and all the natural hazards they come with. Hundreds of earthquakes have occurred in the United States over the course of recorded history. While many of them are of low magnitude and low impact, a few big quakes have occurred in many parts of the country. Some of the biggest earthquakes in the United States, based on their magnitude and impact on human life, are listed below:
The Good Friday Earthquake, or Great Alaskan earthquake as it is more commonly called, is considered one of the most powerful to have ever occurred on the North American continent. Based on its magnitude, this earthquake is the second-most-powerful earthquake on record in the world. It took place on March 27, 1964, which was a Good Friday.
The 9.2-magnitude earthquake lasted a little under 5 minutes (4 minutes 38 seconds). It triggered a tsunami, caused massive ground fissures, and destroyed several buildings. The death toll at the end of the earthquake stood at 131. The property damage as a result of the earthquake was estimated to be $116 million ( which is about $75 billion by present-day estimates).
Cascadia Earthquake (1700)
Magnitude: 8.2 to 9.2
The Cascadia earthquake affected a region now part of present-day Washington, Oregon, and California. It occurred on January 26, 1700, along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, hence the name. The specific magnitude is not certain, but estimates put it anywhere between 8.2 and 9.2.
One of the major marks left by the earthquake was the rupturing of a 620-mile fault line. It also triggered a tsunami off the coast of Japan that caused major damage there as well. Since it happened so long ago, the exact amount of property damage and the fatalities this earthquake caused are difficult to quantify.
On February 4, 1965, nearly a year after the Great Alaskan earthquake, Alaska was hit by another massive earthquake. This time it was an 8.7-magnitude earthquake that occurred on Rat Island, Alaska. The earthquake also triggered a 32-foot-high tsunami that hit Shemya Island.
The earthquake’s epicenter was an area between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. The impact of the quake was felt not just in North America but also in places like Japan, Ecuador, Mexico, and Russia. Fortunately, because of the remote location of the quake, it did not cause major damage. The resulting tsunami did cause $10,000 worth of property damage, but no lives were lost.
San Francisco, California (1906)
Although not the biggest earthquake in America, April 18, 1906, the San Francisco earthquake is often considered the most devastating earthquake in the United States, both in terms of casualties and property damage. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake occurred along the San Andreas fault and covered an area of nearly 300 miles.
Although the earthquake lasted for less than a minute, the impact was felt as far inland as Nevada. The most conservative estimates of casualties claim 700 people died that day. However, some estimates suggest that the death toll might have been as high as 3,000. The earthquake triggered a fire that destroyed up to 80% of the city. Property damage from the quake was as much as $400 billion in today’s money.
Charleston, South Carolina (1886)
When the Charleston earthquake occurred on Aug. 31, 1886, geologists didn’t have the proper tools to measure seismic activity. However, some estimates claim that the magnitude of the quake was about 7.7, making it one of the biggest earthquakes in America to date. Although an active tectonic zone, very few earthquake events had occurred in this area before this quake and even after it.
The tremors lasted for about a minute and wreaked major havoc on the city of South Carolina. About 60 people were killed by the quake. It destroyed more than 2,000 buildings in the Southeast United States, causing property damage worth $166 million in 2021, based on current estimates.
Loma Prieta, California (1989)
The 6.9-magnitude earthquake occurred in the Nisene Marks State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This was the first earthquake involving the San Andreas Fault in about 70 years since the devastating San Francisco earthquake that occurred in 1906. The main areas affected by the tremors were the San Francisco-Oakland area.
Aside from the casualties and property damage it caused, what made this earthquake so famous was that it occurred during the World Series game in San Francisco, making it one of the first earthquake events to be broadcast live on TV.
The earthquake led to the death of at least 63 people, and more than 4,000 others were injured. One major factor that contributed to the property damage caused by this earthquake was the breakage of underground water pipes, which led to the liquefaction of the soil. Several buildings, highways, and bridges were destroyed because of this. The fact that not many people were on the roads (due to the world series game that was ongoing at the time) lessened the death toll from the quake quite significantly.
Northridge, California (1994)
The 6.7-magnitude earthquake took place on January 17, 1994. The affected area was on a fault line that was unidentified until the earthquake occurred. The tremors lasted for just a few seconds but covered a large area. The impact of the quake was felt as far away as San Diego and Las Vegas. At least 57 people died that day, and over 9000 suffered various injuries. More than 82,000 residential and commercial buildings were damaged or completely destroyed by the quake. The earthquake, which is one of the country’s costliest to date, rendered at least 125,000 people temporarily homeless. Property damage due to the earthquake was estimated to be at least $20 billion.
Long Beach, California (1933)
A 6.4-magnitude earthquake hit the densely populated Long Beach area. The actual earthquake occurred on the Newport-Inglewood fault, which was offshore, southeast of Long Beach. However, the impact of the quake was felt on the South Coast of California.
The earthquake resulted in the death of about 120 people and many others were injured. Property damage was estimated to be about $837 million based on recent figures. Experts say the death toll could have been higher, considering the affected area had more than 120 schools that were destroyed by the tremors. The only saving grace was that it occurred when the schools were closed, lessening the impact quite significantly.
While this list includes some of the biggest earthquakes in the United States, it is important to note that many earthquakes may have higher magnitudes than these. For instance, the 1957 Andreanof Islands earthquake had an 8.6 magnitude. However, there were no casualties involved. Many other high-magnitude earthquakes have occurred in the US with no significant damage due to their remote location.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/pandapix
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- Fox News, Available here: https://www.foxnews.com/us/5-of-the-most-devastating-earthquakes-in-us-history
- World Atlas, Available here: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-biggest-earthquakes-in-us-history.html
- Air Worldwide, Available here: https://www.air-worldwide.com/publications/air-currents/2017/Top-10-Historical-Earthquakes-in-the-U-S---What-Would-They-Cost-Today-/