Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Natural Disasters - Earthquakes

Different types of Natural Disasters results in the death of thousands of people every year. This will be the first in a series of posts that will cover some of the Natural Disasters and the effects they have. In order to create a broader understanding of the risks involved a timeline with some historical examples will be presented. Among these natural disasters few can cause as much death and devastations as earthquakes. One very problematic aspect of earthquakes is that they are events that can occur only on a few times over many years. When they takes place they can have an enormously destructive effect and with no or little warning.

Earthquakes are normally generated because of earth movement along fault lines. The area surrounding The San Andreas Fault Line that passes through California is an especially high risk area in the United States. The cause for earthquakes has only recently been discovered and today the high risk areas for earthquakes are known. The forces from an earthquake can destroy building and infrastructure like roads, bridges, the electrical grid, sanitation and water supply. This can cause secondary effects like fires and outbreak of epidemics like cholera. The collapse of building and falling items is the most common cause of death resulting from an earthquake, around 90% of all deaths result from this.

There are some common scales that are used to measure the effect of earthquakes: The Richter Scale is one of the most well know. The Richter Scale is logarithmic, the difference between a level 4 and level 5 is ten times in strength, the difference between 4 and 6 is a hundred times in strength and the difference between 4 and 7 is a thousand to give some examples. The Movement Magnitude Scale is a more modern scale used to the magnitude of earthquake. The Mercalli Scale of Earthquake Intensity is a scale with the twelve steps that describes the destructive force of an earthquake where I on the scale normally aren’t felt by people and where XII equals almost total destruction. The epicenter of an earthquake is the geographical point where an earthquake is centered.

1755 An earthquake occurred on the first of November, “All Saints day” in Lisbon, Portugal. Many of the people in the city were in the churches when the earthquake hit. The churches were not built to withstand an earthquake and collapsed. Many of the building were destroyed and a devastating fire that lasted for days followed. Many fled to the shore for safety but were hit by tsunami waves created by the earthquake. Additional earthquakes would follow that further worsened the situation and laid many towns to waste. It’s believed that somewhere between 10.000-100.000 people lost their lives in this disaster.

1906 on April the 18th a devastating earthquake hit San Francisco. The earthquake rated 7,8 on the Richter scale. The devastating fire followed that lasted for three day, fighting the fire was also hard because of the lack of water. Over 3.000 died and around 250.000 people in San Francisco became homeless as a result.

1923 The Great Kantō earthquake hit Japan. 100.000-150.000 died from the devastating earthquake. The disaster took place during lunchtime; many used fire to prepare food a factor that worsened the fires that broke out. Around 2 million became homeless.

1964 One of the most powerful earthquakes in modern took place in Alaska on “Good Friday” March 27. Only around 100 people died from the earthquake in the low populated region.

1970 The worst natural disaster in the history of Peru too place in Nevados Huascaran. The earthquake triggered a massive landslide and 60.000-75.000 died as a result. Over one million people also became homeless.

1976 One of the worst earthquakes in history took place in Tangsan, China. Around 250.000 died and around 150.000 were injured. A combination of unsafe buildings and soil condition worsened the effect of the quake and left many of the survivors homeless.

1976 a devastating earthquake hit Guatemala. Around 22.000-23.000 died, over 70.000 was injured and thousands were left homeless after the earthquake that hit during the early morning when many were still asleep in their homes.

1976 just under 10.000 died from an earthquake in the Philippines

1978 a massive earthquake took place in Iran. The city Tabas was affected the worst, 75% of the people living in the city died leaving only around 4000 alive. Almost all of the healthcare personal and doctors died in the city adding to the desperate situation. Around 25.000 died in total.

1985 around 10.000-15.000 died from an earthquake that affected Mexico City. Mexico City is particular vulnerable to earthquakes because of the ground that the city rests on that easily can move during earthquakes.

1988 over 25.000 died from an earthquake in Armenia, then a part of the Soviet Union. The earthquake took place during the winter and many died from a result of the severe cold when their housing was destroyed. The city of Spitak was almost completely destroyed.

1990 Iran was affected by a powerful earthquake that resulted in 40.000-50.000 dead, around 60.000 wounded and many thousands homeless.

1993 just under 10.000 died from an earthquake in Marashtra, India

1995 around 6.500 died from an earthquake in Japan, most of them from the city Kobe. Around 200.000 buildings were destroyed along with major damage to the infrastructure. The poor district in Nagata Ward held many of the casualties from the earthquake, a combination of unsafe buildings and flammable chemicals used in for manufacturing of shoes worsened the situation in this area.

1999 a powerful earthquake hit Izmit in Turkey. Poorly constructed buildings and poverty worsened the effect of the earthquake that killed somewhere around 15.000, injured over 40.000 and left over 600.000 homeless.

1999 around 3500 people died from an earthquake in Nantou, Taiwan

2001 around 20.000 died from an earthquake in Gujarat, India during the 51st celebration of India’s Republic Day. Over 150.000 were injured and around half a million became homeless.

2003 a major earthquake affected Bam in Iran. The earthquake resulted in over 25.000 dead and around 30.000 injured. The effect was worsened because it took place during the night when many were sleeping. The United States offered assistance to Iran that was finally accepted, this was quite controversial because of the tension between Iran and the US after 9/11 2001.

2005 a major earthquake took place in the Pakistan part of Kashmir that left around 80.000 dead. India and Pakistan managed to cooperate despite the tensed situation between the countries over Kashmir and India helped to provided disaster relief.

2010 On the 12th of January a devastating earthquake took place in Haiti that may have been the deadliest earthquake in history. The death toll is now estimated to be around 200.000-300.000 people, with an additional 300.000 injured and over one million homeless. Haiti had long series of problem with poverty, internal conflict and unsafe building that worsened the effect of the earthquake.

Survival and Preparedness
The time when an earthquake takes place in critical, during night people are much more vulnerable when people are sleeping in their beds and vulnerable to collapsing buildings and falling items. If you live in a risk area for earthquakes the location where you live and the building where you live is critical for your security. Housing that’s not earthquake resistant may literally become a deathtrap. In general housing in low income and poor areas are affected the worst since they often can have a lack of maintenance and less secure building codes. The slums in urban areas or low income countries are classic examples. High Income Countries are often much less affected than low income countries that both have a more vulnerable infrastructure and less resources to manage a disaster. Aftershocks after a first earthquake can cause already damaged building to collapse.

Other secondary effects can be that law enforcement can’t control the situation in an area; plundering, looting and general lawlessness can follow. Normally countries from all around the world will send Search And Rescue Teams (SART) to an affected area, but this is almost like sending an ambulance from oversea. Most of the victims trapped under collapsed buildings will be dead before the SART will arrive. So even they can save some individuals this is a very costly operation that often don’t give big results. The local resources are often the resources that can make the biggest difference. After a few day international organizations like the UN, aid agencies from different nations and Non Governmental Organizations (NGO:s) will start to arrive. These organization will do what they can to help but if you ever find yourself in the aftermath of a major earthquake you must understand there may be a long time before help arrives and that the needs will be greater than any can master in short period of time.

· Make sure that there is no heavy items that can fall down and cause damage, especially over or around your bed.

· The access to water and sanitation may be limited and the risk of epidemics is high – especially for cholera. Having some water stored, an emergency toilet, hand disinfection, water purification filter, water purification tablets, bleach and a first aid kit can make a big difference.

· For search and rescue after a disaster items like flashlights, headlights, heavy duty leather work gloves, protective footwear, helmet and so on can be good items to have. If you would like to be a resource after a earthquake or other disaster I recommend that you join a CERT team, some kind of first responder unit or the Red Cross so that you can get some professional training. A fire extinguisher and fireproof blanket are effective items in cases where earthquakes results in fire.

· In some cases warning of coming earthquakes can be given by government agencies. If you receive a warning take some extra action, fill up some extra water containers and check your equipment. Taking down items for shelves like books and hanging items can also be a good idea.

· During some cases it may become necessary to evacuate and affected area, a Bug Out Bag or Get Home Bag can be useful tools to help you deal with this type of scenario.


  1. Seismic Safety provides earthquake proof foundation repairs and seismic retrofit.

  2. Good post, excellent work on the timeline and including events from around the globe.

    One thing that should be noted is if you live in an area where you can get a warning of an earthquake you only have about one to ninety seconds in which to take cover under something sturdy and hold on.

    There will not be enough time to grab any water or survival supplies at that time. One of the reasons why you need to plan ahead and get prepared before it happens.

    Keith author of Disaster Preparedness Blog