5 of the most devastating earthquakes in US history

In 2019, California was rocked by back-to-back earthquakes measuring 7.1 and 6.4, respectively. The quakes brought renewed attention to the state’s vulnerability given its boundaries around the San Andreas fault line.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has warned that there is a 70 percent probability of at least one magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake striking the Bay Area before 2030.

But until that happens, here is a list of five of the most devastating earthquakes in North America.

Charleston, South Carolina 1886

On Aug. 31, 1886, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake hit the Coastal Plain near Charleston, S.C. At that point, it was one of the largest earthquakes in North America.

The 1886 Charleston earthquake took place before geologists had the proper tools to measure seismic activity. 

The 1886 Charleston earthquake took place before geologists had the proper tools to measure seismic activity.  (digital.library.sc.edu)

The quake lasted approximately one minute, killed 60 people and caused extensive damage to the city. Arriving before seismological instrumentation, much of what is known about the quake comes from an 1889 report by USGS.

Northridge, California 1994

A magnitude 6.7 earthquake hit Northridge – a neighborhood of north Los Angles – on Jan. 17, 1994. An estimated 60 people died, more than 9,000 were injured and 125,000 were temporarily left homeless.

Business Insider estimated the quake cost the city approximately $35 billion in damage.

Long Beach, California 1933

On March 10, 1933, a magnitude 6.4 rocked Long Beach, Calif., causing 120 fatalities and approximately $50 million in damages, according to conservation.org.

Some 120 schools were damaged, more than half of which were destroyed. Fortunately, though, the earthquake occurred while no one was in schools. Experts have estimated that deaths could have numbered in the thousands had children been in school.

San Francisco, California 1906

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is ranked as one of the most devastating of all time. On April 18, 1906, an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 occured, spanning nearly 300 miles along the state’s San Andreas fault, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In terms of fatalities, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was the most devastating in the U.S. 

In terms of fatalities, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was the most devastating in the U.S.  (earthquake.usgs.gov)

The quake lasted for nearly a minute as was felt as far south as Los Angeles and as inland as Nevada. Approximately 700 deaths resulted, but later estimates put the number of fatalities as high as 3,000.

Fires brought on by the earthquake destroyed nearly 80 percent of the city. In total, the damage in today’s dollars was about $400 billion.

Prince William Sound, Alaska 1964

On March 27, 1964, a magnitude 9.2 earthquake hit Prince William Sound, Alaska – about 80 miles east of Anchorage and 40 miles west of Valdez.

At least 139 people were killed in the 1964 Alaska earthquake. 

At least 139 people were killed in the 1964 Alaska earthquake.  (ncei.noaa.gov)

The quake caused soil liquefaction, landslides and tsunamis that ravaged coastal communities and claimed about 139 lives, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Tremors lasted for nearly five minutes, while aftershocks continued for three weeks.

Though fatalities were minimal compared to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, it was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America.